What should atheists support?

I received a long email complaining about the priorities of American Atheists. To distill it down a lot…

To use American Atheist (AA) resources to continue
pressing issues that are predominantly
LGTB is, in my opinion, a dereliction of duty, unwise
and possibly actionable.

Please remember that AA members are,
primarily and traditionally, interested in
separation of church and state issues.


I agree completely on the importance of church/state separation, and I think it’s important to get religion out of our schools, for instance. But why? Think about the deeper motivations behind atheism.

There are many reasons why people should oppose religion. I oppose it because it’s antithetical to good science, and that religion is used by people to endorse ideas that are contrary to the evidence. I consider that a very good reason.

Another very good reason, though, is that religion is behind many of the most repressive policies in this country. It fosters misogyny, child rape, the oppression of LGBTQ people, and a whole raft of vicious discriminatory ideas that harm those who don’t conform. It’s antithetical to healthy social practices, and that is a perfectly valid reason for atheists to fight back. It’s not just for science, or for anti-clericalism, or for legal agendas…many oppose religion because it is a social ill, and they may legitimately find common cause with other atheists for that reason. LGBTQ people need atheism, too, and they may care about other aspects of our culture than that “In God We Trust” is on our money.

It’s funny how Big Tent Atheism only wants to share the tent with cis het privileged white people who only want to talk about the Constitution as holy writ.

Also, it’s really weird to send me a letter like that when I’ve been ostracized from the formal atheist community for arguing that social issues ought to be as important to us as the scientific and legal ones. They don’t know me very well, I guess.


  1. Athywren - not the moon you're looking for says

    It’s so bizarre. We must oppose religion! But also reproduce all the ills it promotes. What? I fully understand being irritated by the dominant religions simply because they’re not what you might personally believe, but to actively oppose them while not caring about addressing the bigotries they spread seems like a complete waste of time.

  2. kome says

    Are there secular reasons to oppose the existence of LGBT+ people or the idea that LGBT+ people deserve equality under the law? Because it seems to me that a very solid way to keep church and state separate is to come to the defense of the LGBT+ communities when they are being attacked and marginalized, because the attacks and marginalization appear to originate exclusively from religious sources.

  3. Zeppelin says

    @kome: The “alt-right” is generally secular, and they’ve come up with all sorts of eugenics/evyopsych/social hygiene justifications to abuse queer people. Since they’re also strongly connected to the YouTube dudebro skeptic community, it makes sense that there’d be efforts to keep these issues out of organised atheism.

  4. numerobis says

    The alt-right are secular? It’s hard to really believe that: they’re constantly mattering on about Judeo-Christian values though (such as the Judeo-Christian value of killing Jews).

    Maybe they do or don’t believe in a supernatural entity but otherwise they’re not exactly distinguishable from a random evangelical preacher.

  5. petesh says

    AA is kind of weird as an acronym: Automobile Association, Alcoholics Anonymous, African American … double plus good, maybe … but anyway, is this blog using AA resources? Also, too, personally I prefer my Atheists Globalist.

  6. says

    Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine a country where the church and state are completely separated. There is no religious education in state schools, no prayers in state funded workplaces, no religious monuments on state property, the word “God” does not appear on money. Would this kind of country be the atheist utopia? Not necessarily. Religiously endorsed child abuse could still persist, Sunday school could still be a thing, misogyny, bigotry, and anti-science attitudes could still remain prevalent. Members of minority religions could still be discriminated in their daily lives. Church and state separation is necessary, but not sufficient, assuming that the goal is to create a just society free of religious oppression and religiously-sanctioned discrimination. Frankly, in my opinion the daily abuse various minority groups suffer due to religiously motivated bigotry is a much more important problem tackling which should be seen as a priority. Some Ten Commandment monument somewhere on state owned land can wait. Unlike people whose lives are being ruined by religion, some piece of stone can wait.

  7. says

    I wonder what arguments there are for discriminating against LGBT people, or morally condemning them, that aren’t based in religion. If you renounce religion, then you renounce religiously based moral prescriptions. Secular morality, based on beneficence and respect for persons, should ipso facto condemn bigotry. Your correspondent would have to explain what I’m missing here.

  8. stroppy says

    It’s an old problem. How do you set up a social system that keeps out the destructive crazy pants (the prejudiced, the superstitious, dogmatists, fabulists, cranks) over time. Maybe it can’t be done. How do you stomp out bad heuristics? I don’t know. I tend to balk at anything with an ‘-ism’ on the end of it. Sooner or later it just asks for trouble, so it would seem that adherence to adaptive thinking needs to be built in; IOW science–an evolving set of tools to keep people from fooling themselves–which I believe thrives best in a secular society.

    You’re going to have a harder time getting religionists to accept atheism than a secular society, which is hard enough. OTOH, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to advocate vociferously for people to adhere to an evidence based approach to everyday life and to organize around that principle. It’s flexible at any rate… ?

  9. kome says

    Sure, there are secular people who try to dress up their hatred of LGBT+ people with secular language, but the origins of every reason those alt-right people provide for their prejudicial views originated in a religious context. As there is no scientific basis for devaluing LGBT+ people (nor could there be; trying to make one is a category mistake), all their efforts are going towards contorting religious arguments to use non-religious language in a manner similar to how creationists try to make creationism appear science-y. It’s flimsy pretense, but ultimately the basis is still religion.

  10. robert79 says

    In a weirdly distorted and strange sense I agree with him.

    Fighting for LGBTQ rights is not an atheist issue.

    It is a human issue!

    Any organisation should be able to demand of its members that they behave like decent human beings. If you don’t, they get to kick you out of their chess club, their dungeons & dragons club, their golf club, their atheist club, and/or their church.

    So yes, AA’s main mandate is fighting church and state issues. But if its members are not acting like decent human beings, that needs to be addressed first else you simply lose all credibility.

  11. vucodlak says

    @ kome and cervantes

    A great deal of the hatred directed against LGBT+ people boils down to “[I think] they’re icky!” A lot of religious people use religion as a cover for these attitudes, but if you talk to them about it, it quickly becomes clear that their real objection to LGBT+ people is that they are simply disgusted by some perceived difference. You can recognize them by the way they go on and on about buttsex, or the anatomy of trans women, or whatever their particular problem is.

    They find these things/people disgusting, so everyone should be banned from doing/being whatever it is that they find so upsetting. Of course, most of them have just enough self-awareness to recognize how selfish that is, so they wrap it up in religion or hygiene or whatever else they can so that they don’t look like petulant, over-privileged, selfish assholes. Which is exactly what they are.

    Religion isn’t always the origin of these prejudices, it’s just a handy disguise.

  12. Hj Hornbeck says

    Zepplin @3:

    The “alt-right” is generally secular, and they’ve come up with all sorts of eugenics/evyopsych/social hygiene justifications to abuse queer people.

    In the late 1970’s and 80’s, the Christian far-Right realized they’d never get much traction if they kept making religious arguments. Other, more liberal denominations would never team up with them, and thanks to church-state separation they’d have great difficulty turning their views into policy. Their answer: develop “secular” arguments they could use in place of religious ones. It didn’t matter that the new arguments were pseudo-science at best, all that mattered is that they didn’t appear religious on their face.

    Meme-washing was the inevitable result. Secular people who aren’t aware of the religious origins of these arguments will start repeating them, effectively obscuring the religious association and making them seem properly secular. Atheists would then eagerly repeat talking points developed and pushed by the Christian far-Right.

  13. Rob Grigjanis says

    Seconding vucodlak @12. Mistreating those who differ too much from perceived norms is a human thing (maybe a primate thing? A social animal thing?). There’s no doubt that specifically religious proscriptions can amplify that inherent tendency against certain groups, but those notions didn’t spontaneously appear from nowhere when the first idol was worshipped.

  14. anthrosciguy says

    It’s so bizarre. We must oppose religion! But also reproduce all the ills it promotes. What?

    It’s the Beyond Burger and tofu turkey vegetarianism style. Only poisonous.

    Another thing is that the social justice aspect of atheism is very frequently about trying to maintain church state separation. You can’t fight for church state separation in the USA without fighting for groups like – exactly like, as in including – LGBT+ people.

  15. curbyrdogma says

    It might help if one were a little more specific as to what events actually spurred this major rift. People are making a lot of knee-jerk assumptions and hasty generalizations in this post without asking for more specifics.

    It seems there was a major kerfuffle over a YouTuber (Rationality Rules) who questioned the fairness of allowing MtF transgenders to compete in women’s sports teams. He made some mistakes which he later admitted to making.

    This YouTuber in question only posted a couple videos on this topic; the majority of videos on his channel by far focusing on debunking figures such as Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, creationists, etc.

    The women’s sports teams debate was the only matter that was approached. Yet he was blasted for being an overt “transphobe” for questioning how fair this was to natural-born women; given the fact that the women’s sports class was intended for those with a female anatomical system (which differs from a male anatomical system not only wrt hormonal levels but muscle mass, bone density, center of gravity, skeletal proportions, cardiovascular system and other strictly physical/material considerations).

    The question remains with regard to how fair such a situation would be to another traditionally oppressed class (women); to allow people who are not anatomically female (yet call themselves “women”) to be included in spaces that were originally sex-segregated? Women who even dare question this are roundly denounced and shut down.

    …and, er… what exactly does any of the above have to do with traditional religions?

    Anyhow. Can such a subject ever possibly be addressed without resorting to namecalling, dismissive labels, strawman attacks, ad hominem attacks, diversionary tactics, appeals to drama, appeals to emotion, conjecture, “I know you are but what am I?” and a litany of other logical fallacies? Asking for a friend.

  16. anthrosciguy says

    I’d suggest you tell your friend to avoid making a comment whose opening paragraph is a big “I know you are but what am I” along with a selection of some of the logical fallacies you list in your last paragraph.

  17. Bruce says

    This quoted letter fragment seems to lack a lot of context, which I fear was also low in its original form.
    At one point, I thought they were talking about the American Atheist organization. As far as I can tell from a distance, they are now mostly good people who mean well, and who have had some LGBT staff in the past and perhaps today. But they have never held themselves to be expert specialists on LGBT issues, so I don’t see why anyone would try to put them into any such issues they weren’t already in?
    I agree with those above who said that many supposedly secular anti-LGBT arguments are likely just cover for perhaps-unconscious indoctrination by religious bigotry in society. So I think atheism and defense of LGBT issues go together, as they are two sides of responding to the common assault by religiously bigoted parts of society.

  18. dma8751482 says

    One must remember that a lot of atheist organizations suffer from tunnel vision: opposing religion isn’t part of an overall procesa of reforming society, but an end in itself.

    Don’t forget the overlap between the alt-right and some branches of Germanic/Norse neopaganism. Case in point: “Woden’s Folk”, who genuinely believe Hitler was the reincarnation of Odin (or is it Woden?):

  19. says

    curbyrdogma@16: If you actually are interested in figuring out what’s going on with RationalityRules, you could do worse than check out fellow FTBlog Reprobate Spreadsheet, which has been monitoring/analyzing this particular kerfuffle for some time now. TL;DR: RationalityRules makes a number of egregious errors in critical thinking, cites evidence which is nowhere near as solid as RR thinks it is, grossly misinterprets some of the evidence he does cite, and is generally a big, fat transphobe. Feel free to address the analysis over at Reprobate Spreadsheet if you like, and good luck to you.

  20. Saad says

    ATHEISM, noun
    athe·​ism | \ ˈā-thē-ˌi-zəm

    1. the offense taken at or the objection verbalized against the assertion that non-white / non-cis / non-heterosexual people are humans and deserve to be treated with fairness and respect

    2. the desire to remove monuments relating to the Ten Commandments from courthouses and to prevent creationism from being taught in public schools in 21st century United States of America

    3. the lack of belief in the existence of a god or gods

  21. says

    “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”
    – Audre Lorde

    People generally assume Lorde’s quote applies only to herself and her concerns. But she recognized the fact that many issues matter and need to be addressed, and not just those that affected her.

    If you’re only fighting for your own cause, how can you ask others to support you? The fight for equality has to be collaborative or cooperative. Division, like silence, favours the oppressor.

  22. microraptor says

    While religion is currently the largest source of anti-LGBT rhetoric in the US, it was common up until a few decades ago for there to be a lot of pushing against it from scientists: being gay or trans was considered a mental disorder, there was research in how to “cure” people, etc.

    Also, Japan, while decidedly more secular than the US, is also more conservative on LGBT rights, they just use different arguments against such things.

    So eliminating religion won’t eliminate all opposition to LGBT rights.

  23. says

    Of course not.

    But Atheist orgs fighting religious arguments against queer liberation (and gender liberation) not only helps people who need to be protected from oppression, but it demonstrates the moral character of the atheists involved.

    In a country where atheists are not merely despised, but assumed to have bad (or no) morals, standing up and making a moral stand is a way to show the falsity of that stereotype rather than simply making an intellectual appeal for others to recognize the stereotype is wrong. Since we are moving in a progressive direction on queer rights, this means that in a couple years as more people who were on the fence about a particular issue come round to the understanding that queer liberationists have had for years, they can see for themselves that on at least one moral issue their church was wrong and the atheists were right.

    Given the (unearned) heightened moral status afforded to churches and their representatives, inviting that comparison and then getting the better of it is tremendously beneficial to atheists. It’s hard to maintain the stereotype of Mel as the most immoral person in town when Mel goes and takes a position that is more moral than the most (reputedly) moral person in town, a local clergy member, and remains true to that position at risk to their own standing…while the local clergy clings to an ever-more obviously immoral position until they cannot maintain it and abandon their past moral precepts.

    Given how atheists are seen in the USA and Canada today, I can hardly think of a better use for atheist organizations’ labor and money than standing up for causes we know are right: feeding the hungry, fostering the immigrant, fighting oppression. In fact, the ACA’s embrace of aiding the homeless was one of the things I thought they got very, very right over the years.

  24. PaulBC says

    Church and state separation is already covered by organizations like Americans United for Separation of Church and State. http://www.au.org They’re an organization I respect a great deal and have supported financially in the past. They also employ real lawyers to advocate in court cases. I’m not saying we can’t use more advocacy, but…

    They’re also not an atheist organization.

    We are lawyers and lobbyists, students and activists, religious leaders and impassioned Americans. We are people of faith and people who don’t profess any particular faith. We are a community that includes and welcomes people of all genders, races, ethnicities, religions or beliefs, sexual orientations, ages, classes and abilities.

    The point being that you don’t have to be an atheist to support church/state separation. In fact, the only group that wants government endorsement or restrictions on religion are members of a group that has something to gain from government involvement (e.g. certain forms of Christianity in this country, Muslims or Hindus in other countries, etc., whichever is the dominant religion wants the government supporting them as it has historically).

    Now an organization that is explicitly atheist is in a position to go further because it doesn’t have to maintain such a diverse coalition. To paraphrase the subject heading, what should atheists care about? Well, in my view, they should care about any individual or group whose rights are violated based on beliefs that originate in religion and have no other conceivable justification. LGBT rights are a pretty clear case. It’s none of my business what drives someone else’s passions if they are not harming others in the process. If I make it my business, that is a moral judgment without any rational basis. When a big tent organization like AU supports LGBT rights (which they do) they still need to be inclusive to people who basically still can’t give wholehearted support, though they may try, because they still feel some sort of behavior is wrong, just that government is powerless to control it. I prefer inclusive organizations when they are not being disingenuous about it, but this is an issue where atheists aren’t hindered in this way and can be more effective.

    However, I don’t think “atheist” is enough of a descriptor to be useful. If a person is simply homophobic or transphobic for some individual reasons, they may go to great lengths to concoct a justification for it, and cast this justification as empirical (whether it is pop evolutionary psychology or some other nonsense). And that obviously does happen. I’m not particularly interested in associating with anyone who goes that route. It seems like the worst of both worlds: untethered from cultural heritage and still being an asshole about it.

    I have always found it funny that “secular humanist” is a term thrown around like the boogey man by certain religious people. I am very happy to be described as someone who requires that government concern itself with secular matters only, and also that I derive my ethics entirely from the effect of my actions on other humans (hypothetically, I would like to extent this to other sentients but let’s just go with humans for now; most real ethical situations at present involve humans–animal rights are important, but I think we if we could stop treating each other like shit first that would be a nice step in the right direction).

    So in short, I think atheists (or anyway my kind of atheist) is a person who cares primarily about other human beings and does not employ metaphysical arguments to justify actions that clearly result in human suffering and rights violations. Is that “social justice”? Yeah, sure. It amazes me that this is now a term of derision. Actually the first place I heard the term was in Catholic school way back. I have continued to care about social justice whether through religious motivations initially or now because I think human beings are ultimately the basis of values and ethics.

    You can be an atheist and not be motivated in this way, but that is just not a cause I’m remotely interested in supporting. Obviously people around the world believe and follow religious traditions that cannot possibly represent the state of reality in any reasonable, literal sense, but seriously that doesn’t bother me nearly as much as how people treat each other.

  25. says

    There should be a basic principle that (absent coercion) what anyone does or wants to do with their genitalia or secondary sexual whatnots is no ones business but whoever they are doing it with. Even if that’s just themselves.

  26. thirdmill301 says

    PZ, the answer to your “why” question is simple — it’s good politics, and this is a great example of the conflict between being principled versus being politically savvy. Intransitive’s quotation from Audre Lourde about we don’t live single issue lives is great philosophy but it’s also lousy as a political strategy. The political organizations with the greatest amount of influence, on both the left and the right, are those that have single issues and stick to them. A case in point is the National Rifle Association (which I loathe, but which I also give high marks to for being effective at getting what they want politically). The day the NRA decides to branch off into immigration, or welfare, or the death penalty will be the day that it loses its effectiveness on guns. That’s true even though most NRA members probably agree with each other on those other issues as well. They have the power that they have because they only have one issue.

    There’s a long list of reasons why it’s terrible politics for the atheist movement to adopt a leftist agenda, not the least of which is that there are far more dudebros than there are you. I don’t like it either, but we live in the world we actually live in, not the world we wish we lived in. And politically, getting some of what you want is better than getting none of what you want.

  27. brain says

    Then maybe it’d be better to change “American Atheists” name into something like “American Humanists” or such.
    LGBT community has a lot of issues with religion-based or religion-soaked societies, therefore they’ll very often have atheists/agnostics supporting their battles. However transphobia/homophoby do not originate in religion: religion only acts as an amplifier, providing “moral arguments” and the power of bigotry to anti-LGBT, but those behaviours all originate from ignorance and fear, who cannot be eliminated only by removing religions (even if that’d be an excellent starting point)

    @21: #3 is nearer to the definition of “agnostic” actually.

  28. John Morales says

    brain @31, #21 was being sardonic, possibly inspired by Ambrose Bierce.

  29. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    thirdmill @ 30: See, here’s the thing about that. Back when I cared/thought the movement was salvagable, I asked a number of leaders of various atheist organizations what their political goals were and how they were planning to bring those about. I either got complete silence in response or absolute wordsalad. One org. said their goal was bringing about “the normalization of atheism and the acceptance of atheists in America,” which sounds reasonable, but when I asked how they were planning on bringing it about, the answer was something like “by being atheists,” which makes no sense whatsoever. If the goal IS to bring about the normalization of atheism, then don’t you think doing actual service might be a good way to bring that about? Feed the homeless, help people after natural disasters, etc. etc. Not just putting up stupid, pointlessly antagonistic billboards and forming social clubs.

  30. thirdmill301 says

    Eric, I completely agree with you that atheist organizations do lots and lots of other stupid stuff as well. I also agree with you that not having a well defined mission, as well as a strategy for how to get there, is just as big a problem as having too many missions. But one particular stupid thing that our organizations have thus far avoided doing is to move from atheist to generic leftist politics. That, I think, would kill it.

  31. PaulBC says


    There’s a long list of reasons why it’s terrible politics for the atheist movement to adopt a leftist agenda, not the least of which is that there are far more dudebros than there are you.

    To echo 33, then what is the goal of the “atheist movement”?

    I can think of two off the top of my head. The most direct would be to promote the idea that reality can be understood without reference to religious belief and this is sufficient grounds (by Occam’s razor) for rejecting religion. I’m not sure this is really political, or just an education campaign. Carl Sagan, for instance, did a decent job of this in the process of providing entertaining popular science, as did science fiction authors such as Isaac Asimov. Neither accomplished it going on the attack, except against unreason itself. I’m uncertain if their target audience would be considered “dudebros.” In the good old days of my youth, I could be confident that the appeal was mostly to nerds like myself.

    A second goal, which I think is more important in promoting a societal good, is (as in 33) “the normalization of atheism and the acceptance of atheists”. For instance, an atheist should be able to win an election at a state and national level, and they should not have to soft pedal their atheism to do it. But it’s unclear how you get there without other cultural changes. In the unlikely event that you accomplish it with transphobic podcasts, it sounds like you’re seeking allies among the majority of Americans who are religious (whether organized or not) but agree on transphobia. That sounds like a massive step backwards.

    To be honest, though I’m not sure what “dudebros” are, getting them to agree with me on the nonexistence of God isn’t an especially interesting goal as far as I’m concerned. Getting religious believers to agree with me on some basic principles of human rights and fairness to act against bigotry and oppression is a much more interesting goal politically. So the simple point may be that an “atheist movement” as such doesn’t interest me any more than an “movement” to get more people to understand how steam engines work. Both are laudable goals in themselves, but they don’t solve any problems that connect to ethical treatment of other human beings.

  32. PaulBC says

    thirdmill301@34 “But one particular stupid thing that our organizations have thus far avoided doing is to move from atheist to generic leftist politics.”

    I would need some details here. What are generic leftist politics? Some leftwing notions are orthogonal to atheism, such as wide scale wealth redistribution. You can be an atheist and not reach any particular conclusion about how an economy should function. I would argue that belief in a particular way of assigning private ownership is effectively religious (especially when talking about massive amounts of wealth decoupled from effort obtaining it). Markets are just as much a human artifice as governments with nationalized industry. So as an atheist, I would not argue that one system is “right”. (E.g., those who equate taxation to theft are leaning heavily on a metaphysical concept of ownership.) It’s all made up and the only requirement is that people follow the rules to the game they agreed on (and adapt those rules when they’re clearly not working for most people). However, I would still say that atheism has little to say about the capitalism/communism spectrum though you may find more atheist communists and more religious capitalists owing to certain historic understandings of virtue.

    On the other hand, bigotry against groups that has historically been justified by religion fits an atheist agenda more closely. This makes atheism a natural ally in the recent advancement of LGBT rights. You could drop this out of fear of alienating some, but who do you have left after this? That is not a movement I’m interested in joining.

    I may be the wrong person to try to understand this, because I just don’t get the concept of atheism as a movement purely to promote atheism. I do get, for instance, the important of having advocacy to prevent creationism being taught as science in public school. I hope atheists still agree on that one and that it is not too leftist or political. But the interesting goal is the promotion of accurate science to impressionable minds, rather than the promotion of atheism per se.

  33. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Frankly, if all I am doing by calling myself an atheist is saying I don’t believe in God, I can’t be arsed. It’s just not worth antagonizing friends and family and humanist believers. I’ll call myself an agnostic or a humanist who doesn’t believe in God or “not religious”. I’ll work with the people of like mind who want to make society more humane for everyone. I’ll work to undermine the patriarchy. I will work to empower people who are excluded. And I just won’t care what other people believe about deities.

    Because if it comes down to a choice between the right-wing atheists and people of good will and failth, it ain’t really a choice. If you are going to be an atheist, you need to be an iconoclast. You need to attack all of the falsehoods that keep humans from being the best we can be. I really don’t care what gods you reject if you still accept the false ones that oppress people.

  34. PaulBC says

    I can think of another purpose of atheist outreach, which is simply to provide a safe space for youth and young adults who may have grown up in a religious environment, felt doubt as to whether any of it made sense, and would benefit from knowing they are not alone.

    I mean, this wasn’t a huge thing for me, for whatever reason. Though I had a Catholic upbringing and education and devout religious parents, I was very rarely discouraged from asking probing questions. I think the view of Catholic education (a bit overconfident) is that all the seeming paradoxes can be answered if you delve into them deeply. It probably worked a lot better when religious practice was woven into the fabric of society, so even those who might not believe would either trick themselves some way (e.g. Pascal) or just shut up about it.

    On the other hand, there are definitely communities in the US in which the fervent expression of belief is required. But kids aren’t stupid. If they’re exposed to enough alternatives, they will at least suspect what they’re being told does not make sense. For me, the obvious argument against religious belief is the fact that world religions are contradictory and that individual beliefs are nearly perfectly correlated to culture and family background and to absolutely nothing else. The explanation that “people made it all up” is just far more compelling than any other, and you really don’t have to think deeply to reach this conclusion. You do (a) have to be aware of the existence of other beliefs and (b) not be afraid to advance your doubts against societal pressure.

    So an ideal “pure atheist” organization would be one that promoted freedom from religious belief and debunked (too common) bigotry against atheists as unethical. It is an ugly word to some, and polling shows this consistently. Changing that view would be a step in the right direction. What I keep coming back to, though, is that the ultimate good needs to come from improving people’s lives. If, say, an atheist podcast series was not merely affirming non-belief in God but also conveying some transphobic evopsych pseudoscience, then it is doing more harm than good.

    I do not trust the motives of those who want to make atheism their key issue, even though I can see the potential good in telling young people that they can follow their doubts to the logical conclusion and it does not make them a bad person.

  35. erik333 says

    I agree completely on the importance of church/state separation, and I think it’s important to get religion out of our schools, for instance. But why? Think about the deeper motivations behind atheism.

    What does “deeper motivation” even mean? You’re an atheist because you don’t believe any gods exist.

  36. Rob Grigjanis says

    erik333 @40:

    You’re an atheist because you don’t believe any gods exist.

    Yeah, but how did you get there? I got there as a kid, starting when I first realized that the stories told in church and Sunday school simply didn’t make sense*. But the biggest step was realizing that it wasn’t fair. I was saved if I accepted the bullshit, but people unfortunate enough to be born into Muslim, Hindu or Jewish families probably weren’t, unless they “saw the light”. Of course, those faiths had their own silly stories as well, even if they weren’t necessarily as exclusive as the one I was born into. Anyway, it’s not a giant leap from there to a position supporting social justice for other people unfortunate enough to be born as whatever they were born as.

    *Not least being told that my dog wouldn’t go to heaven. Fuck that noise.

  37. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    erik4333, No, if I don’t believe in gods, I am a person who doesn’t believe in gods. I also don’t believe in purple unicorns, but I don’t feel the need to label that. The question is whether I perceive enough reward in asserting I am an atheist to justify the friction that ensues in my interactions between myself and believers. If my being an atheist doesn’t make me a better person (and it can, because it forces you to own your beliefs without blaming some deity), then why should I bother? If a world without belief isn’t a better world, why care about whether it is realized?

  38. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    “Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.”–Mark Twain

  39. consciousness razor says

    PaulBC, #28:

    I am very happy to be described as someone who requires that government concern itself with secular matters only, and also that I derive my ethics entirely from the effect of my actions on other humans (hypothetically, I would like to extent this to other sentients but let’s just go with humans for now; most real ethical situations at present involve humans–animal rights are important, but I think we if we could stop treating each other like shit first that would be a nice step in the right direction).

    Well, I bet one of your ethical views is that a person should not go around beating kittens with a hammer (in all or almost all cases, where that is not the best course of action). I think you’ll say something like that right now, and no extensions are necessary to move you (never mind us) a step closer in that direction. You can notice (right now) that the term “humanist” isn’t really expressing what you wanted, because human beings are not all of the sentient beings. We should also be concerned about the effects of our actions on other beings, which all qualify by virtue of being sentient (not because they’re human). That includes at least some non-human animals (which we know exist) and perhaps aliens, AIs, etc.
    So, the “humanist” label is misleading. We don’t have to keep that label and broaden (or misuse) the term “human,” then apply it to these other sentient beings. Without much trouble, we can just formulate these ideas a little differently, to get rid of that type of blindspot. There may be other reasonable options that someone could try to cook up, which don’t depend on something like humanness, but sentience seems appropriate, in the sense that it doesn’t include too much or too little.
    If there is a reason to stick with a label like “humanist” or “secular humanist,” it looks like that’s just about brand recognition, not ethics. That may be a conversation worth having too, but it’s definitely not the same conversation.

  40. PaulBC says

    consciousness razor@45 “Well, I bet one of your ethical views is that a person should not go around beating kittens with a hammer”

    Sure, but there are a number of things to tease out. First off, it’s true that I believe a kitten is a self-aware creature that feels suffering and has the same right I have to a happy existence. Note: our rights may come into conflict. In that case, I would favor humans, not out of some bogus argument about who is “advanced” or possesses a soul, but only because it is natural more natural to align with my own interests. Maybe it’s something like Hillel’s aphorism “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” I should probably take care of other humans before cats, because cats aren’t going to take care of me.

    But gratuitously torturing kittens is wrong. No question. I would not do it and would despise someone who does. What about poisoning rats? These are smart animals that will die a horrible, slow, painful death after the application of widely available rat poisons. And unlike kittens, they will not draw the same human defenders who might turn me into a pariah for killing them. So at that level, it still comes down to humans.

    It’s certainly possible to commit crimes against victims other than humans. The direct “victims” could even be non-sentients. Is it unethical to destroy rock formations in Monument Valley? You might come to a conclusion in a variety of ways, but the main societal control is that other human beings value these things. Likewise, if I defile some religious symbol, I am primarily doing harm to humans who attach value to these symbols.

    In short, humans are not always the victims, but they are the only judges.

    So I still think that at the simplest level, it is nearly sufficient to frame ethics in terms of humanism. It won’t solve every problem. Let’s agree as a factual principle, that rats are potentially a menace to human habitation. There are still probably more humane ways of dealing with them than with the most common, cost-effective pest control methods. The question is how much we care about it as a society, and that’s a value question. A Jain is going to decide this differently than I would. What about factory farming or any instance, even “humane”, of raising sentient creatures for food. If I think about this, I reach the clear conclusion that I should be a vegetarian, though I am not. And part of what enables me to be so morally lazy is that not enough other human beings around me actually care enough to stop me. (Again, just a factual point, not a justification.)

    So I do think the the practical application of “justice” revolves around what human beings think. If you don’t like calling this ethics that is understandable, but it is a matter of living according to values and sometimes facing consequences from those around you. These values are primarily a matter of human choice.

    I would still argue for the existence of absolute, natural rights, but nearly every pragmatic consequence is a question of what your society will tolerate.

  41. says


    PZ, the answer to your “why” question is simple — it’s good politics, and this is a great example of the conflict between being principled versus being politically savvy.

    oh, bullshit. Debunking the sasquatch and intelligent design and Mohammad’s pegasus fantasies and the idea that Elijah could walk in my door at any moment to join the seder is no more the fodder of a good, single issue political group than doing all those things PLUS debunking religious fantasies that sky-daddy whispered in their ears exactly which kinds of sex are the really-really best and which kinds of sex are banned by the local constitution as it says in Leviticus.

    It is the skill with which you frame your “single issue” that makes all the difference, because even so-called “single issue” groups aren’t. The NRA is much more a gun manufacturing lobby than it is a citizen’s rights group, and yet it does have elements of both. The Black Panthers achieved iconic status in less than three years while tackling a broad range of issues from food insecurity to education to segregation to job discrimination to homelessness to police violence. They had a single organizing principle that people could understand – fighting for Black healing and self-determination. But they fought for many, many issues.

    The only reasons atheist groups could not unify around a single organizing principles to form an iconic group with great motivating potential even as it fights for multiple policy changes in multiple distinct issue areas are
    1. Atheists simply don’t include any people with political skills equal to those of the early Black Panthers,
    2. Atheists actually buy into the justifications for oppressing others and do not want to act to end oppression.

    The former is an ignorant statement and an offensive one: the Black Panthers made thousands of political mistakes. There were many things wrong with their early positions and they had to constantly change to get better over time. Yet they still managed to feed children who would otherwise be going to school hungry and teach classes in philosophy and critical thinking (not always well, I’ll grant, but they organized the classes and found motivated teachers and gave it a shot and were willing to hear when they got things wrong so that they could get better). They still managed to find temporary housing for people with no place to stay. And, relevant to our discussion, they still managed to engage the national media on issues where they could credibly present a valid moral critique of then-current abuses of power.

    The second statement might be true, we as atheists might actually be asshats more often than not. We might, as a group, care less about ending oppression than other groups (like, oh, I don’t know, Methodists or origami enthusiasts). But since that’s what PZ is arguing to change, you’re not adding anything into the conversation by saying, “But some atheists are asshats!” We know that already. That’s the premise of this whole discussion.

    So I’m left wondering if you know anything at all that would contribute to this discussion. Even worse than your ignorance about the level of political skill required to make a difference, the difference between a simple, easily communicated organizing principle and a “single issue”, and even the level of knowledge of the people with whom you’re attempting to converse, you seem arrogantly dedicated to assuming that you know more than the people around you about all these things.

    Not only do you not know more than others about these things, but the problems we have to fight are never about ignorance. Ignorance doesn’t have to be fought. If someone is merely ignorant, you can hand them a few facts or a good book and, presto!, no more ignorance and there’s no “fight” at all.

    No, the problem is arrogant ignorance that does not want to hear that it is ignorant. The problem with religions isn’t that some people happened to think that praying made an invisible friend snap some magic fingers which made cancer go away. The problem with religions is that they are resistant to hearing anything else. This makes studying why cancer actually goes away in some cases much, much harder. Why tax ourselves to pay for fundamental research into making cancer go away when one already has the solution – and the solution happens to cost nothing but a few moments of silence?

    You can insist, if you like, that an atheist group cannot be “generally lefty” or something similar. But no one is arguing for a nebulous mission, and if you can’t take the time to understand what people are actually arguing, then whatever you write here will inevitably take the form of ignorant blather.

  42. PaulBC says

    I agree that the extension of ethics to non-human sentients will be more important if we establish verbal communication with extraterrestrials or AIs of our own construction. For that matter, a deeper understanding of non-human animal sentience might get us there. Do we really know what’s going on in the mind of pig? The answer may shock us. Cue the click bait, but seriously, we might feel very different about eating an animal that could speak in its own defense.

    But I think in terms of politics in the early 21st century, it makes sense to stay focused on human beings. Treating other human beings ethically is a prerequisite to the other things. So I am still going to stick with “humanist” here. In practice, it’s the motivating value even if it can be criticized on theoretical grounds.

  43. starfleetdude says

    We’re already treating pets such as dogs and cats as beings deserving humane treatment, and it’s clear that chimpanzees and bonobos are intelligent beings that are much like us in terms of cognitive abilities. As for eating them, since humans on occasion do eat other humans, it doesn’t appear that intelligence is a barrier to being eaten!

  44. thirdmill301 says

    Crip Dyke,

    “and if you can’t take the time to understand what people are actually arguing, then whatever you write here will inevitably take the form of ignorant blather” is one of the worst cases of projection I’ve ever seen.

  45. thirdmill301 says

    Though I will give you some credit; this time you actually did engage with some of the things I actually wrote, so I suppose that’s progress..

  46. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    The politics argument is one to beware of. It’s the reason why the left is all but extinct in this country, as more and more Dems moved to the right to be more “electable”. And all that happened was that the right killed the center, too. People are regrouping on the left precisely because it’s more isolated from the right and therefore safer.

    The problem is that decent people–regardless of their take on religion–care about social justice. That is kind of inherent to what it means to be a good person. My lack of faith is less central to who I am. It’s just the way the world looks to me, not how I desperately want the world to be. If I have to choose between trying to make the world a kinder, less hostile place for minorities and the downtrodden and atheism, then b’bye. And I suspect that most decent atheists feel the same way.

    And that will leave you with the assholes. No thanks. I’ll pass.

  47. PaulBC says

    Still responding to consciousness razor@45 and sorry for the multi-post.

    Maybe what I mean to say is that my humanism is descriptive, not prescriptive. I care about stuff that other human beings care about, because I am a human being and have some chance of understanding why they care. I am primarily interested in extending this beyond my in-group and making it universal.

    I think this is a normal and healthy channeling of empathy into action that may align with ethical principles. But it’s effectively a stopgap and a concession to my human fallibility rather than a philosophical absolute.

  48. PaulBC says

    a_ray_in_dilbert_space@52 ‘The politics argument is one to beware of. It’s the reason why the left is all but extinct in this country, as more and more Dems moved to the right to be more “electable”.’

    I would add that you get a lot more respect if you appear to care about something, that is to say something other than slicing and dicing the vote to a narrow victory. You will get some respect for that, but only among bloodless political hacks who will advise you to do the exact same thing again, but win next time.

    In a situation where you’re going to lose anyway, you might as well go down standing for something other than a failed attempted to game the election. This seems like a no-brainer. And if you look like you care about something, you might even inspire other people who care about the same thing. I would definitely like to see the Democratic party take this point to heart (not holding my breath) but in the case of an “atheist movement” the stakes seem so hypothetical that it is really jumping the gun to get into “electability.”

  49. says

    thirdmill, #50:

    Crip Dyke,

    “and if you can’t take the time to understand what people are actually arguing, then whatever you write here will inevitably take the form of ignorant blather”

    is one of the worst cases of projection I’ve ever seen.

    thirdmill, #51:

    Though I will give you some credit; this time you actually did engage with some of the things I actually wrote, so I suppose that’s progress..

    WTF? Alexa? Can you Google translate ignorant blather to English?

    Alexa: I would be happy to. Thirdmill says,

    “No, you’re the ignorant projector!

    Oh, wait.

    It looks like you made substantive arguments in this thread before I ever showed up (including arguments that directly countered my own thoughts and which I left entirely unaddressed because I don’t actually educate myself about what people in a discussion are saying before I jump in and announce my fully formed opinion), and then you responded to my inaccurate insistence that politically effective groups must necessarily be single issue by not only linking your original comment which I should have taken into account but also by pointing out that one of my own examples of single-issue groups is arguably multi-issue as well as by providing a more relevant analogy to an atheist community and atheist advocacy group in the Black Panthers that more than adequately addresses my exact argument. If I continue to maintain that you don’t actually do anything more than projection, people might catch on to the fact that I’m not paying attention to what you’re saying. Better walk that back.

    :Ahem: Though I do deign to notice that you made an exception in this particular case. Too bad you couldn’t have made any substantive comments before I forced you to! :Ahem:

    Yeah. That’ll show them that I’m not bullshitting.

    Now if only I can get everybody to forget how I spent a dozen comments yelling about how the only explanation for deviating from expected legal procedure in that BC tribunal case was rank sexism and trans* privilege when I didn’t have the first clue what the procedures of the tribunal were in the first place, much less whether there was any deviation.

    Thank you, Alexa. That was very helpful.

  50. consciousness razor says

    Sure, but there are a number of things to tease out.

    Yes, there are always are, whether it’s humanism or some other form of naturalistic ethics. People like to talk about it as if it’s one thing, like it’s the only naturalistic option on the table. But we should be clear that it really isn’t like that at all.

    I should probably take care of other humans before cats, because cats aren’t going to take care of me.

    I think that’s bogus. I remember taking care of some dying relatives. That was prioritized above a lot of other things I could have done… I had no expectation that they would return the favor and didn’t need any such thing, to justify why I was doing it. They were hurting, I could do something to help, and that was reason enough.
    Anyway, I said we should be concerned about how our actions affect cats (for instance). That should be taken into consideration, which is very different from something like “always prioritize the welfare of cats” (or humans). We routinely accept that some amount of harm is unavoidable for individual human beings, that choice X is the best out of a bad lot, that we had no choice in the matter at all, and so forth. This is no different.

    In short, humans are not always the victims, but they are the only judges.

    We are, as far as we know, until we encounter that sort of alien lifeform, artificially intelligent being, or what have you. What then? Then we’re not.

    So I do think the the practical application of “justice” revolves around what human beings think.

    Sure, but some of us think the wrong things. It’s internally consistent for a self-described humanist to disagree with both of us, about various forms of animal abuse for example. The point is that we don’t need that kind of moral blindspot built into the view we’d actually like to endorse, and it doesn’t take much effort to do quite a lot better. That wouldn’t solve all our problems, of course, but it’s something.

  51. says

    Consciousness Razor:

    The point is that we don’t need that kind of moral blindspot built into the view we’d actually like to endorse,

    First let me say that I agree that the particular blindspot you’re discussing was, in fact, “built into the view” that PaulBC articulated.

    But I thought I’d add that I don’t think it has to be just because the word “humanism” is involved. For myself, I always thought the word “humanism” in the phrase was a reference to a philosophical commitment to acting humanely, not necessarily acting for humans.

    It is unfortunate that whatever I took to be the meaning, and whether or not the blindspot is inherent in the use of the word humanism, the phrase “secular humanism” apparently communicates a particular devotion to humans. While I appear to disagree on whether this is a problem innate to the definition or merely of inexact communication, the debate you two are having is making me rethink exactly how clear and exactly how useful that particular name can be.

    Shorter me: I come from a different perspective, but you two have convinced me that a name change has to be at least considered.

  52. erik333 says

    @41 Rob Grigjanis
    If a religion were true, would it necessarily be fair in this way?

    @43 a_ray_in_dilbert_space
    The term for such a person is an “atheist”, whether or not you hide this fact is of course up to you. The only way to stop being an atheist is to start believing in a god, but how one would make oneself do that i have no clue. Beliefs mutable to will, that way madness lies.

    On average I reckon atheism is an improvement over theism insofar as arguments become (in principle) mutable to rational discourse. Further, many religious doctrins are profoundly dangerous, if accepted to be true. E.g. concepts such as heaven and hell make human life very cheap, by comparison. Believing pyramids heal you might make cause you to not go to the doctor, etc. Insofar as religious beliefs are beneficial, they are so mainly by accident and time weeding out the ones that kill you before you breed.

  53. Rob Grigjanis says

    erik333 @58: “What if god exists, and he’s an arsehole?”. I’ll fall off that bridge when I come to it. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

  54. PaulBC says

    consciousness razor@56 “I think that’s bogus. I remember taking care of some dying relatives. That was prioritized above a lot of other things I could have done… ”

    Right, but you prioritized it above taking care of strangers who may have needed more care and through no fault of their own had nobody to take care of them. Actually, I don’t want to get into a pissing match over whether this is ethical. Your behavior is a normal exercise of compassion towards your in-group, though it’s not pure self-interest, and in fact most people would find it shocking to abandon relatives in favor of strangers.

    We can get into all kinds of discussions about the right term for a worldview that condemns, among other things, hitting kittens with hammers, but it seems a little pointless to me. I am pretty comfortable with the term “humanism” for a basis of ethics that is not grounded in the existence of supernatural beings, and reaches the conclusion that it is generally bad to hit kittens with hammers.

    Regardless, it’s orthogonal to atheism, which is non-belief in God, independent of the conclusions you want to draw from it. The only political ramifications I see to such a “movement” is the protection of atheists from adverse social consequences, and to be honest, I don’t think it’s very difficult to be an atheist in the US except in some specific cases, such as having a career that depends on winning an election. There are some parts of the country where it may be hard to seen as irreligious, though I suspect a lot of people just lie about it and get by OK. So in short, I am not that inspired by the idea of an atheist community bound purely by atheism.

  55. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Erik333, well thank you for that vocabulary lesson! Now what do you call someone who doesn’t believe in fluffy pink unicorns?

    Yes, many religious beliefs are deleterious. Some may be adaptive for some people. The belief that women are inferior or exist only to please men is also deleterious, as is anything Ayn Rand believed in. So if being called an atheist associates me with people like that, well, thanks, but no thanks.

    The reason atheists need to embrace social justice is precisely because it will drive out the incels and racists and misogynists… They do not help us. We are better without them. They are welcome to the name atheist if they want. I’ll call myself something else.

  56. says

    I’m going to list a few statements which I would hope are unexceptionally acceptable—but this is the internet, so… [shrug]

    People have a wide variety of goals and purposes that they consider worth bothering about.

    Groups of people who get organized tend to outperform groups of people who are not organized.

    Groups with a larger number of members tend to have more resources available to them than groups with a smaller number of members.

    If you want to organize a group of people, it’s better to have them choose to go along with the group’s goal(s) than otherwise.

    Any group which is focused solely and entirely on some particular One True Specific Purpose will tend to have, as members, only those people who consider that One True Specific Purpose to be worth bothering about.

    Any group which is laser-focused on some particular One True Specific Purpose will, therefore, tend to have fewer members than any group which lacks that sort of laser-focus on whichever One True Specific Purpose.

    Does anyone disagree with the above statements?

  57. consciousness razor says


    Right, but you prioritized it above taking care of strangers who may have needed more care and through no fault of their own had nobody to take care of them.

    At the time, I was not in a position to give more help to numerous other people. I’m usually not, honestly, because I’m pretty fucking poor and don’t have much to offer. You don’t have to believe me on any of this, but I try to do what I can.

    Actually, I don’t want to get into a pissing match over whether this is ethical. Your behavior is a normal exercise of compassion towards your in-group, though it’s not pure self-interest, and in fact most people would find it shocking to abandon relatives in favor of strangers.

    But you’re not getting it…. I could have brought up different examples of helping “strangers” too, or whoever you think is not supposed to be part of my “in-group.” Again, believe it or not, whether it’s normal or not, I had no expectation that they would return the favor. This time, it’s not because I knew they’d be dead soon, but because I knew they’re strangers. So getting something in return is not why I should have helped them, nor is it describing why I did help them. They needed help, I could give it, so I did.
    That’s not mutual back-scratching, and of course it doesn’t need to be. If your brand of humanism says otherwise, so much the worse for it. I realize that some sciencey, handwaving arguments about evolution or evo-psych might have told you that’s the only way it could ever work — that it’s selfishness all the way down or some shit — but they can’t be very good arguments if they don’t fit with all of the empirical evidence we have.

  58. thirdmill says

    a_ray_in_dilbert_space, No. 52, my primary premise when it comes to politics is this: People care about social justice so long as they don’t have to make any sacrifices to achieve it. People would be willing to do something about global warming if it didn’t mean that they had to give up their SUVs and international vacations. People would be willing to have a better social safety net if they didn’t have to pay taxes for it. So you’re right, a lot of people do support social justice; it’s just that their support is a mile wide and an inch deep.

    Also, in politics, the system is stacked so that for the forseeable future, our choices are going to be spectacularly awful versus mind numbingly bad. That goes for any viable candidate for public office, and it also goes for the results of political organizing. So there are really two choices: You can give up and walk away, or you can stick it out because even an occasional crumb is better than nothing. And that, I think, is the fundamental difference in our approaches. You’ve decided you don’t want to affiliate with assholes, which is a perfectly legitimate choice. I’ve decided that the occasional success is still worth affiliating with assholes, though i will admit my adherence to that position isn’t nearly as strong as it used to be.

    But if you’re going to go for the occasional success, it means playing the game.

  59. thirdmill says

    Crip Dyke, No. 55, I hope you feel better now that you got some of the shit out of your system. You’re still pretty full of it, though. Don’t forget to wipe your mouth since that’s the orifice through which the shit keeps exiting.

  60. says


    What an intelligent way to substantively address the issues I’ve raised! I’ve noticed that you quote specific passages of other people’s posts and then provide your own specific analysis and evidence quite often. It’s really quite remarkable that in this one particular thread I haven’t yet seen a substantive response from you to facts brought up that apparently tend to refute your “single issue organizations are the only organizations we can realistically expect to be politically viable and effective” assertion.

    I must be responding without substance only because I somehow missed, what with my inattentive reading, all the substance you brought to bear after my #47. You wouldn’t have criticized me for having no substance in your #50 and #51 without having any substance of your own, would you?

    You couldn’t be that gallingly hypocritical, could you? I’m sure that, yet again, I must be ignoring all your deep, clever, and well-evidenced argument brought in rebuttal to my #47, not just amusing myself observing that you spend all your time hating on people who never engage in substantive rebuttal at the expense of you actually engaging in substantive rebuttal.

    Yeah, sure. That must be it. Because I know there has to have been a substantive statement you’ve provided somewhere after my #47 or you couldn’t possibly have the chutzpah to commit the sin you’re accusing me of committing in the very comments where you’re making the accusation.

    It must just be written in invisible ink.

  61. consciousness razor says

    People care about social justice so long as they don’t have to make any sacrifices to achieve it.

    That’s “socially liberal and fiscally conservative” for you. Strange people, the lot of them. Not everyone is like that, though.
    It’s not they actually care, but they will mouth the words “I care” and do nothing about it. Those people may spew that duplicitous crap, yes…. But it’s not clear why we should take it seriously, why we should have thought everyone is like that, why this is “the game” of politics that we all must play instead of some other game which isn’t so fucking stupid. That’s a lot of murkiness in your statement right here.

  62. PaulBC says

    consciousness razor@63 “Again, believe it or not, whether it’s normal or not, I had no expectation that they would return the favor.”

    I think you’re over-interpreting a remark I made in passing, so I’ll apologize for the lack of clarity. I did not claim that people normally offer help selfishly or that they always expect a favor to be returned. There are many reasons that people act with compassion towards relatives or towards strangers, towards those we will repay them and towards those who do not.

    I don’t have a good answer, but do you agree there is at least a question? Given that we all make choices that have beneficial effects on some and adverse effects on others (or at least have the opportunity cost of not helping others), who do we prefer when we make these choices? In practice, these choices are rarely made in a way that has a sound philosophical justification. So I’m not trying to justify why I might treat a human life with more regard than the life of a cat in the unlikely event that it came down to a choice between the two (some form of trolley problem). I would favor the human though. Again, I am making a descriptive rather than prescriptive point.

  63. consciousness razor says

    I think you’re over-interpreting a remark I made in passing, so I’ll apologize for the lack of clarity
    Again, I am making a descriptive rather than prescriptive point.

    Fine, but it wasn’t in passing when you said “I derive my ethics entirely from the effect of my actions on other humans.” That’s simply and factually incorrect, as a description, like I pointed out and you agreed. Not to rub it in or whatever… I was thinking of my first response to you as a friendly amendment or a course correction (maybe not such a big change as you seem to think, but an important nonetheless). Then we went off on that tangent and a few others. But even if we should only talk about it descriptively (not a claim you gave an argument for), I don’t think your original attempt works. Right?

  64. PaulBC says

    consciousness razor@69

    OK, how about “I personally follow my conscience intuitively and it is largely guided by the perceived effect of my actions on other human beings.” If this is not a perfect description of my own behavior, it’s the best approximation I can come up with. Obviously, we’re all going to have different intuitions about things. It is shocking what “good” people will accept as normal (bringing the kids and a picnic lunch to a lynching). So simply saying “I’m a nice person with a sensitive conscience and a compassionate streak.” is pretty lame, but I’m not going to pretend to have it all laid out in it defensible terms. To be honest, I’m pretty lazy and I’m not sure how much I help anybody. I try not to cause harm.

    The kitten example is interesting, because the immediate reason I wouldn’t torture a kitten is because I’d empathize with it and feel horror at the thought rather than concern myself with what other people would think about me. But if I had rats in my house, I might employ an exterminator and just get out of Dodge for the day and pretend the whole thing didn’t happen. A brief bout of moral cowardice and the problem is solved. Besides which, I could be reasonably confident that I would not be condemned by my peers (not even in the SF Bay Area). Of course, I wouldn’t torture a rat for the same reason I wouldn’t torture a kitten, and that supports your point. But to a first approximation, my actions are circumscribed by human values rather than any other basis.

  65. PaulBC says

    consciousness razor@69

    But to waffle a little further, even if I control my own behavior out of personal conscience without considering the effect on humans, it is often because I’ve internalized a view shared by humans around me. A lot of these views are malleable and learned (the division of animals into pets, livestock, pests, and wild animals). So even if it looks like I’m coming to a conclusion based on something other than the effect on other humans, it’s likely that my self-judgment is a proxy for the judgment of society.

    In short, while human values may not explain everything, I think it would be hard to overestimate how much being part of a human society does explain as compared to more abstract philosophical considerations, which explain very little actual human behavior.

  66. consciousness razor says

    OK, how about “I personally follow my conscience intuitively and it is largely guided by the perceived effect of my actions on other human beings.” If this is not a perfect description of my own behavior, it’s the best approximation I can come up with.

    Okay, I guess that’s getting somewhere. Now to remember where we started….
    If I have to sign on the proverbial dotted line, saying that I endorse this thing called “humanism” which I believe is a proper naturalistic way to engage in ethical reasoning, a reasonably complete system of thought that many around the world can agree upon and use, and if with my signature comes a statement that looks anything like what you just wrote above…. Then I’m not putting my fucking name on that piece of paper. Is that fair?
    I may reconsider it, if the paper doesn’t say anything about PaulBC’s somewhat intuitive conscience, which may only approximately describe what PaulBC would do.
    But that’s just saying what I would do, yet this wasn’t really the topic. After all, neither of us is Jesus, as far as I know, and it’s my understanding that you’re only supposed to ask WWJD specifically. Then, most likely, you should do the opposite.

  67. John Morales says

    Heh. Such depths!

    Me, I do what I think it best to do at the time, neither prescription nor prescription, just inclinations and a lifetimes’s worth of experience and thinking. Rules are for rulees.

  68. John Morales says

    [Grr. neither prescription nor proscription! Stupid attempted word-play]

  69. PaulBC says

    John Morales@74 Maybe you need a new prescription, or at least a change in dosage.

  70. thirdmill says

    Crip Dyke, I do not respond to you substantively because you’ve proven yourself to be a dishonest opponent. You may have noticed there are lots of people here with whom I disagree but with whom I can still have a civil conversation. That’s because unlike you, they don’t take what I say and twist it beyond all recognition. If I use a word or a phrase that has multiple possible meanings, they don’t intentionally pick the meaning that they know full well wasn’t mine. They show me the courtesy of responding to the arguments I’ve actually made.

    Sure, I could go through what you said and respond on the substance point by point by point, but all that would accomplish would be to give you more ammunition to twist my words further. Why would I do that? You want to be treated with respect, try showing some.

  71. says

    Crip Dyke, I do not respond to you substantively because you’ve proven yourself to be a dishonest opponent. You may have noticed there are lots of people here with whom I disagree but with whom I can still have a civil conversation.

    And your opinion is fine. You’re not required to debate me.

    But why dishonestly pretend that I have made no substantive arguments or replies? Why jump into a thread announcing that only single-issue organizations can be reasonably expected to be politically successful when there have already been refutations of the idea? Why write as if your argument hasn’t already been considered and rejected for specific, substantive reasons? Why treat the opinions written in this thread as if they’re no worth reading or responding to … and then arrogantly presume that your opinion will nonetheless be valuable enough to spend time articulating?

    I actually spend time trying to understand the arguments of others. If I get those arguments wrong, you’re certainly free to try to correct me, but dishonestly pretending that I articulate nothing of substance is as bad as your bullshit insistence that the BC Human Rights Tribunal was wrong in a procedural decision to allow a case to proceed when, in fact, you knew nothing about provincial HRT procedures and the tribunal not only had made no such decision, but had no opportunity to make such a decision under the procedural rules for that venue. Get it? Your arrogance allows you to assume that others made errors that they never actually made. You repeatedly insisted that trans* claims should not be heard before the HRT and only much later did it emerge that your complaint was procedural and only after that admission was it possible for anyone to understand that the real problem was that you knew fuck all about the procedures established under British Columbia law and were just assuming that they must be like whatever procedures you practiced under wherever the fuck you practiced law.

    How could I possibly have known that your statements about dismissing that HRT case were comments about a procedure that doesn’t actually exist? Wouldn’t you expect people to misunderstand you? Wouldn’t you, at some point, actually admit, “You know, I fucked that up badly. I can see why no one understood what I was saying”? Wouldn’t taking some responsibility for an argument that can only possibly look like an argument that trans* people don’t deserve the same access to the legal system as cis people unless and until someone is informed (or assumes) you have no fucking clue what you are talking about be the logical and decent thing to do? Why should everyone else be responsible for “twisting your argument” when your argument could only possibly make sense if a person with actual knowledge of British Columbia law denied reality itself? And if the only reasonable interpretations of your argument are, “Thirdmill doesn’t respect the humanity and legal equality of trans* persons,” and “Thirdmill doesn’t mean what Thirdmill is saying because Thirdmill has no fucking clue that the underlying assumptions of Thirdmill’s argument directly contradict reality,” wouldn’t you be very, very likely to cause unintentional hurt? In fact, wouldn’t you want to live in a world where more than 50% of people assumed you know what the fuck you’re talking about when you open your mouth? Do you really want to live in a world where no one takes offense because we assume you don’t know fuck-all about reality and therefore ascribe no meaning to your words whatsoever?

    You made an argument that was either stupidly, arrogantly ignorant, or directly and inexcusably offensive. I chose to assume you were, in fact, coherent. I was wrong.

    But now that you know that, you have the opportunity to make amends by apologizing for communicating that you don’t give a shit about trans* persons humanities because you were too busy assuming that you knew shit that you didn’t have the first clue about.

    But are you apologizing? Are you taking any responsibility for any of your errors? Are you apologizing for any of the hurt you’ve caused? Nope. You’re whining about how you’re not addressed “substantively” while not even having the decency to read and understand the content of the very thread in which you’re commenting. Why should I take you substantively when your last huge objection – that the HRT should have thrown out a case at an earlier procedural stage that didn’t exist – turned out to be based on nothing but imaginary bullshit? And why, in the face of this history of bad behavior on your part in the last thread, would you spend your time complaining that a person known to speak from complete ignorance isn’t receiving sufficiently substantive responses … even when those substantive responses are right there three comments before your own?

    What does that get you?

    I’ll tell you what it doesn’t get you: any respect from me.

  72. MattP (must mock his crappy brain) says

    thirdmill, your mismatched socks are showing yet again…

  73. says

    That bald assertion about members only wanting the organization to care about church/state separation issues. Disbelief just covers what you don’t believe in. It doesn’t suggest what we do and choose to prioritize.

    It’s not just LGBT+ issues. It’s women’s issues, it’s issues involving racism, and other kinds of bigotry. It’s a general community issue. Controlling our group biases is a general community health issue. If you don’t care about bigotry you don’t care about the irrational political priorities of racists, sexists, homophobes, transphobes…

  74. says


    It is, indeed, hard to imagine creating an organization to fight round-earthers who came to their round-earth conclusions through fallacious reasoning. And so, imagining people who support bigotry spending the time and money to create (or use) an organization to tell religious people, “Keep treating queers exactly the same way, but remember that the better reason to treat queers badly is [this rational reason] and not [this religious tradition].” Seriously, what would be the point? Even if you prioritize critical thinking, you might as well choose the example that you use to teach critical thinking from among those topics where people are not only using fallacious reasoning but also reaching harmful conclusions. It saves the whole extra step of saying, “Okay, now that you’ve learned the basics of fallacies and logical reasoning, let’s start over with this other topic over here…”

    But I guess that also explains why so many atheist dudebros who oppose fallacious thinking in a general sense don’t want to spend time and energy taking down religious justifications for sexism (or whatever other oppression). I mean, if you don’t want the sexism to change, why not just start out with an example of better reasoning on a topic that really matters to your every day life, like los chupacabras?

  75. says

    @Crip Dyke 81
    The sexism is useful for many so they try to preserve it. They want to be able to dismiss someone based on looks or something else irrelevant when they’re politically threatening. Of course someone complaining about bigotry inside their group have a reason to complain. They’re in the group.
    So they come up with the most rediculious justifications that really only work because there’s usually another ten nearby. “You’re trying to shut me up!” When they’re getting criticism. “Here’s a single example of a bad person in that group that I’ll attach to a general statement about being able to discuss things, and I won’t show how it’s relevant to members of that group here!”

    They’re literally critisizing, being critical of trans people as a group, with their discussion. If course others can critisize them in turn and in the same social arena.

    I’ve seen people lamenting politics being brought up, in general, at the athiest experience show facebook group. They didn’t even try to justify how it’s bad to bring up politics, and utterly ignored the fact that athiest criticism of religion is politics(most of the posts).

    I’m contemptuous of so many things.

  76. PaulBC says

    I wonder how many atheists are actually “dudebros”, who may be overrepresented on the Internet. I think a lot of people reject their birth religion without making a huge issue of it and just try to get along in their community with varying degrees of openness depending on the acceptance they expect to get.

    If I had to form a club of people who agreed with me on everything I really care about, I doubt I could extend it beyond myself. Given the need for compromise, I’m more willing to compromise on people’s philosophical basis than on the issues they advocate in practice. If I needed persuading to begin with, this thread would be enough to convince me that atheism as such is a weak basis for advocacy, even advocacy for church/state separation, which is already the focus of organizations that include both atheists and believers.

  77. says

    This kind of discussion is relevant to me “Systems of Community Contents” page. I list pros and cons of each approach, and I could probably add more. Though you’ll note this page doesn’t have citations, I do have a bit of experience but I’m mostly making simple guesses from the armchair.

  78. says

    Oh to speculate further, related to some discussion here:

    Think of the company Amazon.

    It did one thing really well (sell books online) and grew huge.

    And then it expanded to doing everything.

    If I recall, this is the common strategy/dream/advice for business “startups”: get a niche and grow, then use that capital to monopolize all industries and the entire planet.

  79. thirdmill says

    Crip Dyke, you know what I did before I commented on the BC Human Rights Tribunal? I went on their Web site and read their rules to be sure I knew what I was talking about. And I did know what I’m talking about — frivolous cases can be dismissed without a hearing. No need to take my word for it; you can go to their Web site and check it out for yourself. Now, we can disagree about whether this particular case is frivolous — I continue to think it is — but you instead chose to change the subject to my supposed lack of familiarity with their procedure (which by the way I’m right about). And that’s the sort of stuff I’m talking about.

  80. starfleetdude says

    I wonder how many atheists are actually “dudebros”, who may be overrepresented on the Internet.

    Back in the day on Usenet it was the libertarians who were over-represented as a relative few posted a lot to various news groups there. It isn’t just “dudebros” these days who are over-represented either, but any group with a few members with axes they’re willing to grind repeatedly. One thing that a lot of people don’t understand about politics is that it’s really not all about them and their personal preferences, but of achieving a group consensus on a fairly modest set of principles and goals. But it’s more fun to argue on the internet I suppose. :-/

  81. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Thirdmill@52, So, if shit sandwich is the cheapest item on the menu, everyone will keep ordering the shit sandwich? Not sure I agree there, Bro. Not even sure if I want to eat in a restaurant where shit sandwich is on the menu.
    I think Oscar Wilde was on to something when he said, “A cynic knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing.”
    The problem is that if you stand with assholes, any occasional victories you might win will be tainted by their association. So it is not that I choose to stand alone, but rather that I choose to stand with others. In the end, gods are less important to me than people. I’m not about to start believing in gods, but if I can help more people by teaming with people who do not share my disbelief, why would I quibble about my disbelief.

    Who you stand with has consequences. There may be a lot of people who share your basic skepticism, but will balk at association with bigots. If your movement makes it clear that it doesn’t want to be associated with women, LGBTQ or people of color, you are going to lose not only these groups but also anyone who identifies as an ally of these groups. That is not an insubstantial number of people, and they are also the people who are more fun to hang with.

    Look, it may turn out that Ben Franklin was correct, and that there is a subset of people who cannot be decent humans without the threat of eternal damnation. I cannot believe in gods myself, but if they keep guys from becoming incels and douchebros, then let them have that ole-time religion.

  82. PaulBC says

    “So, if shit sandwich is the cheapest item on the menu, everyone will keep ordering the shit sandwich?”

    I keep thinking of the old joke. “The food is so bad.” “Yeah, and the portions are so small.” I’m sure there is a useful metaphor in there somewhere.

    I’ve been watching politics with some interest at least since Reagan was president, and I’m not sure they won’t keep ordering the same shit sandwich.

  83. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    PaulBC, What people support depends on how you ask them. If you ask them if they would support wrecking the economy to avoid climate change, you’re going to come out with a pretty lopsided result. On the other hand, if you say, “Would you be willing to pay $0.35 a month more on your electric bill to avoid the worst effects of climate change?” The result is going to look a lot greener. I think most people want to do the right thing. Unless you are a monster, doing the right thing makes you feel good.
    They way Rethugs get people to do the wrong thing is by keeping the issues vague, the voters confused and the politicians bought.

  84. thirdmill301 says

    Ray, and Paul, I go back to what I said earlier, which is that most people want to do the right thing so long as it doesn’t cost them anything. I suspect that for every true racist who really and truly believes that blacks are inferior to whites, there are probably a hundred people who are not racist in the sense of actually believing that black people are inferior, but who nevertheless are perfectly willing to keep a racist system in place because it’s to their economic benefit. It’s not that people are monsters; it’s that they put their own interests first.

    And whether it makes sense to order a shit sandwich depends on what the options are. Currently, the Republicans are doing just fine politically, specifically because of their willingness to open their tent to some pretty vile people. And the reality is that if you don’t get elected, your programs aren’t getting implemented no matter how good they are. At the end of the day, I think Machiavelli pretty much got it right. There is an outer limit; I’m not going to vote for Hitler just because he was an animal lover. The question is whether we’ve reached it.

  85. Rob Grigjanis says

    a_ray @90: Do you think a 35 cent per month increase could avoid the worst effects of climate change?

    The CBC recently conducted a poll on the cost of mitigating climate change. My bolding.

    The concern about cost was most starkly demonstrated when respondents were asked how much they would be willing to pay in taxes every year to help prevent climate change.

    Nearly one-third, or 32 per cent, said they were unwilling to pay anything at all, while 17 per cent said they would be willing to pay less than $100 in taxes every year. Netflix’s most basic plan comes in at a yearly price tag of $120.

  86. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    OK, first and foremost–and I defy you to prove me wrong on this or to find a counter example–you should NEVER order the shit sandwich. You probably shouldn’t even order in the restaurant that has shit sandwich on the menu.

    Second, it depends on how people define what their interests are. It may be in your interest to earn more money. However, it is certainly in your interest to not feel that you are a piece of shit for trampling over people to get that money–at least if you are not a monster. It is certainly in your interest to ensure that your children and grandchildren have a world in which they can live and prosper. It is certainly in your interest not to feel fear every time you see a brown person or guilty of out of control when you see a woman. And I contend that, despite being a straight, white, cis, solidly middle class male, it is in my interest to undermine patriarchy and other oppressive power structures by empowering women, minorities and other disadvantaged groups. That is because the patriarchy oppresses everyone and prevents us from realizing who we are. That is the idol I am really intent on breaking.

    Rob, Yeah, I know. However, as I said, I think it depends on how you phrase the question. People were against US involvement in WW I until it was recast as a war to end war. This is the genius of the New Green Deal. It promises something better on the other side of the sacrifice, and while that is at present only an aspirational goal, it is not necessarily a lie. Yes, truly addressing climate change will be expensive. We have to create an entirely new infrastructure ferchrissake.

    The thing is that the money spent is an investment rather than a frivolous expense. We will learn a lot about a lot of things by undertaking that exercise. There will be spin-off applications that may result in technologies we currently cannot dream of. We could wind up with an utterly new economy where, instead of growth, progress is gauged by creating more benefit to people with less expenditure of resources.

    We don’t know what things will be like on the other side of this crisis. I’m willing to bet that the outcome is better if we manage it earlier and more gradually rather than in a panic while facing catastrophic effects of climate change.

  87. PaulBC says

    Rob Grigjanis@92

    “Nearly one-third, or 32 per cent, said they were unwilling to pay anything at all,”

    My guess is that people are disinclined to take a threat seriously unless that have some experience with it. Catastrophic threats are by definition ones most people have no experience with. In fact, people are likely to continue to worry about a low-probability event recurring if it happened to them once before, and give it higher priority than a potential, more likely threat that does not conform to their experience.

  88. Rob Grigjanis says

    PaulBC @94: My guess is that the 32% largely overlaps with the Conservative base in Canada, who are buying into the bullshit they’re being fed by Doug Ford (Ontario) and Andrew Scheer (federal). Which is extra funny sickening because the Tories were for a carbon tax until recently. Railing against it with demonstrable lies is their ticket to power, and never mind the consequences. Fuck them.

  89. thirdmill says

    Ray, No. 93, as far as what is in someone’s best interest, not everyone is burdened by your scruples, as the current occupant of the White House demonstrates on a daily basis. Some people really have no conscience and would sell their grandchildren for cash. But I think most people probably just don’t think about it at all. They see what’s right in front of them and don’t think about what damage they may be doing to themselves, the planet or the future. Global warming probably won’t be fixed for the simple reason that the people currently benefiting from not fixing it aren’t the ones who will suffer when it hits. They’ll be dead And if you’ve spent your life feeling threatened by people with darker skin, you don’t think about that either.

    I grew up gay in a fundamentalist Christian family. My gayness was the catalyst that made me re-think my religious upbringing and ultimately conclude it was nonsense. I’ve often wondered, if I weren’t gay, would I have questioned my belief system, or would I simply have gone through life on intellectual auto-pilot, not questioning what I’d been taught because I would have had no reason to question what I’d been taught. If your parents raised you to believe that your whiteness makes you special, chances are you’re not going to question it, especially since believing that makes you feel good. Evil does exist, but intellectual laziness is far more prevalent.

    As for whether one should ever order a shit sandwich, I can think of several situations, all of which are thankfully rare occurrences. If someone is holding a gun to your head and going to shoot you if you don’t order the sandwich, you should probably order the sandwich. Not because it’s a good thing, but because it’s less bad than the alternative. Which is pretty much how I view current politics.

  90. John Morales says


    Which is pretty much how I view current politics.

    Nothing special about current politics.

    (Same as it ever was)

    Bottom line: you can do something now, or wait until the current politics changes.

  91. MattP (must mock his crappy brain) says

    Damn dude. At least try to keep your socks straight. null, 301, null again in under 17 hours.

  92. says

    I haven’t caught up with this thread, but Thirdmill said last night that they checked the HRT procedures and that I was wrong about the availability to get a complaint dismissed early in the process.

    It was my intent to check that today, but they day got away from me. I originally didn’t want to comment again until I got my facts straight, but since I haven’t had time, I’ll just assume Thirdmill was right about that one and apologize. Thirdmill shouldn’t have to wait more than 24 hours after a comment like that for appropriate contrition, and it’s looking like I won’t be able to read HRT or write anything more substantive, so I’m just dropping this here for now.

    I don’t know exactly how that happened, but I’m sure it’s on me misremembering something. I can think of a couple places I could have gotten the wrong idea into my head, but I don’t know which one, exactly.

    In any case, it looks like I was probably wrong about procedure. Apologies to Thirdmill who got that part right.

  93. thirdmill says

    Crip Dyke, I was completely wrong about you when I said you were a dishonest opponent, and I apologize. I should not have called you dishonest since you’re obviously not.

    This week it was my turn to be right on the facts (or at least that particular fact). Next week, I’ll probably misremember something and be completely wrong on some fact or other. It happens. Thanks for the apology.