Why I am an atheist – Thom

I must have been about five when my brother and I built what we thought would serve as a handy container for Santa’s collection of assorted vintage beers. Apparently we got it into our heads that he was an avid drinker. It was a cardboard box with a cut-out reindeer head taped to the side, a feat of what seemed at the time an achievement of artisan carpentry that could have provoked Jesus to throw his messiah badge away in lugubrious defeat. In retrospect it was probably a bit naff. Our parents were now faced with the question of what to do with it on Christmas Eve. In the end they settled on the plan to forge a note from Santa claiming that he thought is was so good, he didn’t want to separate us from it, and so had it magically duplicated, and kept one of the duplicates for himself.

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DJ, please fix this genuine problem

The Amazing Meeting is having some enrollment problems — and strangely, they are going against the overall trend I’ve seen in many skeptic/atheist conferences, as reported by the JREF president, DJ Grothe.

…this year only about 18% of TAM registrants so far are women, a significant and alarming decrease, and judging from dozens of emails we have received from women on our lists, this may be due to the messaging that some women receive from various quarters that going to TAM or other similar conferences means they will be accosted or harassed…I think this misinformation results from irresponsible messaging coming from a small number of prominent and well-meaning women skeptics who, in trying to help correct real problems of sexism in skepticism, actually and rather clumsily themselves help create a climate where women — who otherwise wouldn’t — end up feeling unwelcome and unsafe, and I find that unfortunate.

There it is, in one paragraph: the problem AND the cause. Only it’s not the cause DJ thinks it is.

It’s unfortunate. Years ago, TAM was a leader in getting a wider range of people motivated and attending — it was the meeting with the smallest percentage of old white men like me attending, and I considered it a nice model for getting more diversity in the movement. I also have to give DJ credit; he’s really gone to bat to get more women represented on the stage. I don’t think DJ has a malicious, anti-woman bone in his cheerfully gay body. It’s also good to see that he sees declining female registrations as a serious problem, and feels some urgency in correcting it.

But sometimes, he can be so oblivious.

First of all, when women are talking about harassment problems, listen: don’t try to tell them that they really shouldn’t feel that way, and worst of all, don’t treat it as a mere perception problem. Your concern should be to address the root causes so that their complaints disappear, not merely wave your hands at them to rationalize a stance of ignoring them. Think, “Hmmm. These people have concerns, how can I address them?” not, “Hmmm. These people have concerns, how can I get them to stop expressing them?”

Secondly, don’t blame the reporters. They’re your sensory network, they’re out there experiencing your meeting and coming to you to tell you what they thought. Dismissing unpleasant reports is a good way to blind yourself to what’s going on, and to increase the magnitude of the problems. Good job, DJ, you just discouraged all the women who want your meeting to be successful by telling them it’s their fault if they talk about sexism.

I think TAM was also a leader in some ways: last year, they were very quick to post an official anti-harassment policy. Good work, except now DJ is claiming that it has never been used.

It is true that harassment issues are much discussed in some quarters of the skeptics and atheist and other allied movements (all generally for the better, to the extent the emotionally charged issues are tempered with evidence) but to my knowledge there has never been a report filed of sexual harassment at TAM and there have been zero reports of harassment at the TAMs we’ve put on while I’ve been at JREF.

What? Ashley Miller was harassed and reported it, and now DJ is denying it happened. I heard from another person near the end of the conference that someone had blown through the nearly empty hallways while a session was ongoing to make lewd remarks to someone sitting at the tables; it was reported, I heard, and I joined in with another fellow to look for the “gentleman”…he’d escaped, so it didn’t happen? There was also an incident on twitter in which a prospective attendee threatened to grope Rebecca Watson on an elevator at TAM; I thought his registration was revoked (I also heard that it was restored when he said pretty please, but I’m not sure about that).

So now these incidents didn’t happen? Baffling.

It’s all well and good to have a piece of paper that you can wave around, saying that harassment will not be tolerated…but the next step is effective implementation, and that hasn’t occurred. Document everything: there should be a formal procedure for submitting a report in writing that gets filed away. There should also be an action taken — dismissing the offender from the conference, escorting someone out of the hall, giving a verbal warning, whatever — and that should be written down, too.

Without all that, we get into these ugly situations where the victims experience these events, and then watch them get flushed down the memory hole — their concerns are simply dismissed.

DJ needs to own up to the existence of a real problem, rather than closing his eyes to it and pretending it’s only a PR issue. He’s got to take TAM’s anti-harassment policy seriously, and give it some teeth and engage in some record-keeping. I do think he means well, but good intentions are not enough. There has to be some solid effort beyond drafting a list of dos and don’ts.

Real Scientists™ don’t let the evidence get in the way of the theory

David Sloan Wilson amuses me outrageously. He accuses me of not thinking scientifically in an astonishing glurge of pettifogging pedantry. You see, he’s peeved that I have said that the deleterious effects of patriarchal religion on women are obvious and that arguing that religion is beneficial to women is ridiculous, so he’s going to set me straight on how to think like a real scientist…that is, apparently, like someone who is divorced from pragmatism and reality.

Myers the ideologue thinks that he can demonstrate the harmful effects of religion on human welfare with a single word — WOMEN. Here’s how a scientist would set about studying women in relation to men. The first step would be to ask what evolutionary theory predicts about male-female relationships and how the predictions are borne out in nonhuman species. [I…what? The first thing a scientist should do is look up the theory that will tell him about the relations of men and women? I would have thought that the first thing we should do is measure the relative status of men and women.] That inquiry would show that sexual conflict is common in the animal world and that the kind of sexual equality that has become a virtue in contemporary western society evolves by genetic evolution only under special circumstances.[OK, I understand that comparative ethology can be useful…but it doesn’t answer the question of the actual status of men and women. That sexual conflict occurs does not mean we should not oppose it] Among the great apes, gibbons are monogamous, bonobos form female coalitions that resist domination by males, and males boss females around in all of the other species (and most other primate species). [I notice we still aren’t talking about humans] None of this variation can be explained by religion. [Yes. Because humans have religion and those other apes don’t. “Religion” is the variable in question, and we’re pondering how it affects human society; you can use data from other primates to show that religion isn’t the only factor that affects sexual relationships, but that’s not the question.]

The second step would be to see if variation in male-female relations within the human species can be explained by the same evolutionary dynamics that explain cross-species variation. [Nice of him to consider our species finally] For example, it is likely that in both cases, the ability of males to control resources needed by females will result in sexual inequality. This is one reason why agricultural societies are more patriarchal than hunter-gatherer societies — regardless of their religions. [That there are many factors that affect the relationship of the sexes in a species is not a point under contention. The question is whether religion does harm, or is a moderating factor to limit the damage caused by biological predispositions]

To measure the effect of a given religion on sexual inequality, that religion should be compared to the other cultural forms (religious and otherwise) that existed at the same time and place, such as early Christianity vs. Roman pagan society, early Islam vs. the many Arabic cultures of the region, or Christianity vs. scientific views about sexual equality in Britain during the Victorian era. I won’t try to second-guess the result of such an inquiry, but I do know this — it isn’t self-evident. [Or, rather than trying to calculate from theory the effects of a welter of complex phenomena, we could cut to the chase: are women oppressed by their society? Does religion act to oppose that oppression, or justify it?]

Myers and other new atheists seem to think that their action-oriented agenda doesn’t leave room for such scholarly footwork, but the reverse is true. Scholars who remain in the Ivory Tower can make mistakes without hurting anyone. [This was my very favorite part!] Those who leave the Ivory Tower to make a difference in the real world need to be extra careful, lest they hurt people on the basis of faulty theory and information. Humility is called for, which is the very opposite of ideological braggadocio.

I love that last bit. It’s an admission that David Sloan Wilson sneers at that dirty complicated real world; we’re supposed to sit in our ivory tower and calculate whether religion has a deleterious effect on women.

Rather than condescendingly telling us about evolutionary dynamics, I’d like Wilson to get specific.

How does depriving girls of an education benefit women?

How does raising girls with the expectation that their purpose in life is to bear children benefit women?

How does throwing acid in their faces when they demand independence from men benefit women?

How do honor killings benefit women?

How does stoning rape victims benefit women?

How does female genital mutilation benefit women?

How does letting women die rather than giving them an abortion benefit women?

I’m just asking about women here, but I could also say that the attitudes fostered by religion-based misogyny also do harm to the well-being of men — these are deep, wide-spread, endemic problems that poison whole cultures, including our own.

I would also not argue that these problems are solely caused by religion: atheists can be misogynists, too, and history and culture shape individuals in many ways. But these are cases where religion validates and reinforces the oppression of women; secularization and liberalization (more liberal religions are less damaging than conservative, dogmatic ones) reduces the harm done. The question is not whether religion is the only force that does harm, or even the force that does the most harm, but whether religion does more harm than good. I suggest that Wilson open his eyes to the tangible, measurable harm done to women in the name of god, rather than closing them to the real-world data that makes his theories superfluous.

You know, while he sits in his ivory tower trying to ponderously calculate whether women are being hurt, women are actually being hurt.

Why I am an atheist – Rolf Schmidt

Yesterday my father died.

It was a cruel way to die: a stage 4 glioblastoma tumor was pressing on the speech centre of his brain and robbed him of his speech for most of the past year. For a university professor who communicated science passionately this was adding insult to injury. But he generally faced his illness and advancing death with a calmness and acceptance that most would expect from those that know they will be heading off to a better afterlife. And yet he was an atheist from beginning to end.

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Simple guidelines

So did you hear the latest about a presenter at a skeptics’ meeting getting propositioned? Elyse was handed a sexually explicit invitation by a couple of nice strangers to participate in group sex. Guys, don’t do that.

I have a simple suggestion. Think of sex as something two or more friends do; but also keep in mind that most friends don’t have sex together. When you’re at a meeting, plan to make friends promiscuously, but remember: the purpose first and foremost is friendship, not sex partners. And that friendship takes two people interacting, not one setting the expectations and telling the other what’s happening.

Maybe you make friends really quickly, and one evening of conversation is enough to reach mutual agreement and mutual attraction that leads to sex; that’s fine. But you know, playing pick-up artist is not how you become friends. Handing someone a card does not make you friends. Reading someone’s blog does not make you friends. Hearing someone speak at a meeting does not make you friends. Becoming friends takes a lot of work and communication. If you try to take a shortcut past the “making friends” part, don’t be surprised if you find yourself reported for harassment, or your activities outed and shamed on a popular blog.

The first simple guideline is: make sure you’re friends before crossing any borders.

The second simple guideline is, again: you don’t have sex with most of your friends. Sex is not a necessary side effect of friendship.

Be aware of that, and most of these problems will disappear, and everyone will be able to relax around each other a lot more.

Sye Ten Bruggencate and Eric Hovind: Pariahs

They’re doing it again: Ten Bruggencate and Hovind are selling content from atheist interviews, cutting out the parts where they agree to not use it for profit.

The only appropriate response at this point, I think, is to recognize them as frauds and liars, and never participate in anything with them. They call you? Hang up. They stick a microphone in your face at an event? Turn your back on them. Reject them wholesale, and treat them as the dishonest parasites they are.