If you care about secular America…

You might want to join this project. Dr. Juhem Navarro-Rivera gives an introduction to his Secular Voices panel at Skepticon (a five hour long video? That’s the entire afternoon/evening lineup — Juhem is just in the first hour, don’t be afraid).

Or, in short:

Understanding the secular vote in 2020

This project will help develop a a unique panel of nonreligious Americans who will answer monthly surveys during the 2020 campaign to learn more about the politics of this important, growing, and not well-understood group.

He’s looking for volunteers to contribute their opinions (Hey! You can do that!) to build a picture of the scattered, splintered secular community and their views on politics. Most of the polling work is done by outsiders who don’t even know what questions to ask of godless people, so this is going build an informed perspective from the inside. It’s currently a work in progress, sign up to help shape the story.

Skepticon: the rifts are full of lava!

James Croft reviews Skepticon, and the Deep Rifts it exposes.

Skepticon 11 couldn’t have been more different. This year, of all the main presenters, there wasn’t a single white man – in their place, instead, a queer and colorful array of social justice warriors, exploring topics like intersectionality, race and racism, and secular ritual. The participants, too, were notably more diverse, with more women and genderqueer people than I have even seen at a skeptics event.

This is a marked shift in a relatively short time: something has happened to organized secularism, such that its priorities and population have rapidly changed. Today, there is a deepening rift between two wings of the movement, and the changes in Skepticon demonstrate this perfectly. The new rift in the secular community, it seems to me, parallels one deepening in the culture at large: it is between those who are on board with contemporary social justice culture, and those who are not.

In the community of skeptics, this rift is filled with lava: there is an incredibly intense animosity between those on different sides, and the divide seems impossible to cross. I think I know why this is. The USA, being deeply religious and deeply wedded to certain forms of woo, tends to dislike those who reject religion and supernaturalism. Thus people who value the fact that their beliefs are the result of rational scrutiny are treated as if they are wrong or even immoral, driving them to find community with like-minded skeptics. (I have observed that in the countries and regions where religion and supernaturalism are strongest, so is organized skepticism – one drives people to the other.)

This community is to them a safe space. For the mainly cishet white men who originally found their home in organized skepticism, it was a place where they could feel valued, welcomed, and smart despite holding views which were not always esteemed in wider society. There they could say what was really on their mind. They could rail against the stupidity of creationism and the dangers of dogmatism. They could relax, and be themselves, and be celebrated for being themselves. It was a place to celebrate skepticism qua skepticism, without the disapproval they experienced in the wider world. Safe spaces are intoxicating and beloved: sometimes they are the only place where those people can live into the fullness of themselves.

Yet organized skepticism was never safe for everybody. Those spaces, while affirming skeptics qua skeptics, consistently failed to address the issues which make wider society unwelcoming to everyone who isn’t a cis straight white man. Skeptic events had problems with sexual harassment. They invited mainly cishet white male speakers. They focused on issues which were of interest and importance to cishet white males (as well as a small selection of other issues where the connection with religion was particularly clear). Thus the movement was mainly a playground for white cishet men.

Yeah, I’ve noticed. I can’t take credit for noticing, though, because I was stunned by the abrupt emergence of the split in the community — I remember blithely assuming that of course atheists and skeptics would find common cause with oppressed minorities everywhere and gladly welcome them into the fold (they were already there!), because they were constantly preaching about how the godless were discriminated against. I was shocked at the vehement anger that greeted my early suggestion that there was more to atheism than not believing in a god, and it took a couple of years for what Croft summarizes here to sink in, while that community and I were mutually alienating ourselves.

It’s clear with hindsight that there was a cishet white male skepticism, and a whole ‘nother branch of diverse skepticism, and I was a traitor to the former. Man, that lava burned when crossing it.

David Silverman is failing Redemption 101

When last we heard from David Silverman, he was involved in some new enterprise called Transformative Humanists of America. Tragically, that seems to have vanished off the internet. Whoops.

Now he’s started something new, a website for himself called Firebrand for Good. Good for him. He should be scrambling for redemption after the disgrace that led to his ouster from American Atheists, and that’s the right thing to do.

Unfortunately, the path he’s taking is to simply deny the accusations, and blame it all on a conspiracy of liars. That’s not the right thing to do.

Stephanie Zvan goes through all the details he gets wrong and misrepresents, and doesn’t let him weasel away from the wrong he did. He also makes another point I want to address — he argues that he did a lot of good in his prior position. That’s true!

Do you remember the strict codes of conduct, the gender neutral bathrooms? the ERA speech on the capitol lawn? the first atheist contingent at a choice march? Those were good ideas. I’ve been a feminist for 30 years and I did a lot for us.

I became a lifetime member of American Atheist when I saw what Silverman was doing, because I thought it signaled a good direction for the organization to be taking, so I supported it with my dollars. Really, I think that’s what we have to do, positively reinforce good approaches, and … negatively reinforce bad ones. When Dave was found to be on the shady side on a number of issues, I retracted my support for him personally.

He is not winning me back with this strategy of denying the problems. That just tells me he isn’t going to change.

I also support my local humane society. If I learn one of the staff people likes to kick puppies in the privacy of their homes, I’m still going to support the goals of the society, but I’m also going to expect that that individual will no longer be working there. It would be wonderful if they could work their way back into our trust, but it would take something other than crossing their heart and swearing that no sir, they never did kick no puppies, they sure did love them puppies, can they please come back and work in the puppy room? Because we know they kicked those puppies before. Trying to bury the truth instead of confronting their own ugliness is not going to persuade me that they’ve changed. Quite the contrary.

So sorry, Dave. Your new direction is diametrically opposite the one I’d support. There is no ratchet, and those things you’ve done that I do support aren’t permanent advancements. You can slip back out of grace, and you’ve done so.

When you put it that way…

HJ Hornbeck succinctly summarizes the catastrophic collapse of the credibility of the Atheist Community of Austin. It’s rather shocking — at this time last year, if you’d asked me, I would have said the ACA was the perfect model of a dynamic, progressive, activist atheism group, largely because of the excellent people they had representing it. Now most of those people are out, a rather nasty subculture has taken over, and their reputation is in shambles. It’s just a shame. Matt Dillahunty worked his butt off helping to build that and become a full-time professional atheist, which I’ve come to conclude is a terrible aspiration for anyone, and now he’s an example of how not to run an organization. I wonder if debating terrible people like Jordan Peterson is going to continue to put food on the table for him — he might want to consider alternative careers.

What’s also sad about it is that overall, any kind of organized skepticism/atheism is on the decline. There are fewer meetings, attendance is down, and part of the reason for that is that any time someone sets themselves up as a Thought Leader, we know they’re going to fall and fall hard. We’re not going to have the equivalent of megachurches because authority must always be challenged, and human individuals are intrinsically imperfect. Humans also tend to overreach and grasp for more authority than they can handle. Organized religion seems to be fine with that, but organized atheism has a tendency to splinter.

It doesn’t have to be that way. I just got back from Skepticon, a skeptic/atheist conference that, rather than focusing on one hero of the movement, always strives for diversity and bringing in new speakers and new ideas, which undermines the trap of the cult of personality. It celebrates a community, as the ACA used to do. There’s no figurehead, there’s a team of hardworking organizers, but they’re not the people the content of the conference revolves around, and that’s good. It’s a separation of powers that keeps the institution strong.

That philosophy that everyone matters and that it’s the attendees that makes the conference means that everyone who goes comes away with the warm fuzzies and a sense of anticipation for next year. Attendance may have its ups and downs, but somehow, they keep pulling it off, and everyone walks away happy (well, except for the horrible people who want to sue it out of existence; there’s always that asshole).

The ACA could have been a similarly joyful organization, but it has ground to a halt now, and is never going to have the sterling reputation it once possessed…and is probably going to accelerate its own destruction.

Yes, I’m home from #Skepticon

My sense of time is also totally scrambled. I didn’t get home until 2am, and then slept the sleep of the undead, striving to ignore the existence of sunrise. I woke up late and had to scramble to meet my students for our Monday feeding.

It was the best Skepticon ever, though. I caught a half dozen Missouri p tep, and best of all, a half dozen large egg sacs that I smuggled through the airport and brought to the lab. One of the reasons I had to get into the lab this morning was to get these spiders sorted and labeled, so that I could set up a distinct line of Missouri-born spiders separate from our Minnesota natives. We are going to have a lot of spiders to track for the school year. So yes, best conference ever.

Oh, yeah, and the conference itself…that was pretty good, too. I very much liked the organization, with multiple tracks of ‘workshops’ during the day, with a couple of featured talks in the evening. You could just explore and sample various events, and then later get blown away by the excellent speakers before retiring to the bar. They really were most fabulous speakers, too. Ashton Woods was fierce, Rose Eveleth made me think even at 8pm, Juhem Navarro-Rivera gave a surprising statistical analysis of nones (Guess what? Separation of church & state isn’t the most important issue on their minds, it’s social justice), Indre Viskontas talked about music and minds (good timing, since my granddaughter is coming to visit this week), and Cora Harrington was a total surprise. She’s a lingerie blogger, which I didn’t even know was a thing, but she took a skeptical look at myths about women’s underwear. On Sunday, Miri Mogilevsky talked about ritual as a way of coping with grief, something on my mind this year as several of my colleagues here struggled with cancer. Also unexpectedly, the most ferociously anti-clerical, pro-atheism rage-talk of the weekend came from Marissa McCool. Who says social justice activists are too soft to do a barn-burner?

But most of you missed it. It’ll be back August 14-16 2020, in the same place, so mark your calendars now so you don’t forget. There will be a completely different slate of speakers, but the spiders will also still be there.

I reject conspiracy theories

A rich abuser was put in prison. He was the subject of massive contempt from the general public. He knew he was screwed and wasn’t going to get out of this; he was going to get dragged through a grueling trial. He was never going to get out again, was never going to be able to molest young girls again, and that, apparently, was a part of his life that was extremely important to him. He tried to kill himself once before.

He finally successfully committed suicide. The cops didn’t interfere, they aren’t as competent as you might think from TV cop shows.

I find everything in my description above sufficient explanation of the event. If you want to claim something more nefarious at play, you’ll have to bring additional evidence to bear, and most of us do not have access to any deeper evidence than what we see reported in the news, and if you want to claim that there was an assassin hired to silence him, or that a body double was killed and the man is now getting plastic surgery and living in Uzbekistan, that’s called a conspiracy theory. It’s garbage.

If you want to claim there’s more to this than a despondent man outsmarting a penal system that doesn’t give a damn about the people under its responsibility, I’m going to roll my eyes at the absurdity, unless you bring new evidence.

By the way, plausibility is not evidence, nor is your conviction that someone is a villain.

Skepticon is so good

If you’re not here, you can still listen to the first two talks of the con from Friday night. Highly recommended!

Ashton Woods was a fierce and passionate for social justice, and a great example of the heart of this meeting. Rose Eveleth was smart and funny and made everyone think.

It was only the first day and it reminded me why I’ve been attending this meeting for 11 years. (OK, maybe not why I went the first year or two, they didn’t always have great speakers…but now they’ve settled into an exceptional groove.)

Good morning, Christianity!

This is how some Christians think they’ll win hearts and minds for their religion. It’s pretty much typical for what I wake up to every morning.

There’s a phrase these fanatics like to use: “hardening the heart against God”. I’ve been dealing with this stuff for decades, and they’ve succeeded in turning my heart into a gristley, fibrous lump of black contempt for religion. Thanks, gang, I wouldn’t be the atheist I am today without you!

I would also remind my fellow atheists now that reversing this tactic against them will not persuade them that your intellectual rejection of the supernatural premises of religion is valid, either.

Odd geek out

Uh-oh. I just got a look at the workshop schedule for Skepticon, and there I am, up against a 2 hour block from American Atheists, and at the same time as Callie Wright. Callie Wright! I know where everyone is going to be. I want to go to their session on podcasting. If no one shows up for mine, can I just go next door?

Also, I seem to be the only person doing anything vaguely sciencey this coming weekend. I’m feeling awkward and out of place. I hope no one laughs at me.

12:00 pm – 2:00 pm
Stories to Tell: Breaking Barriers and Building Bridges by Putting a Human Face on Atheism
Nick Fish, American Atheists track

Perhaps the most important goal of the Atheist community is to take away the negative connotations associated with the word Atheist. Nick shares some of his experiences and offers tips as to help us get past the label to see the people behind it.
Colonnade A


1:00 pm – 2:00 pm
Understanding Phylogenetics
PZ Myers

What’s a phylogenetic tree, and why do they keep changing on us? Come build a phylogenetic tree from evidence (with help!) and learn how it’s done.
Colonnade C


1:00 pm – 2:00 pm
How to Make Your Podcast AWESOME
Callie Wright, Secular Women Work track

Anyone can put together a mediocre podcast these days, and lots of people do. Come find out what you can do to make your podcast stand out and be a joy to listen to.
Colonnade B

It’s OK if you’re going to Skepticon and choose to skip my workshop. I’ll understand completely.

The latest poll on creationism is out

The latest Gallup poll is interesting.

The anti-science, evolution-denying creationists have had an uptick (the grey line). I’d guess that’s due to radical conservativism experiencing a triumphal moment right now — a rising tide of sewer sludge fills the hip-waders of all the wacky denialists.

That uptick seems to have come entirely at the expense of the theistic evolutionists (the green line) who have lost a smidge of popularity.

Despite the slight rise of creationists, the godless evolutionists (the dark green line, the color of our heart’s blood) are still rising! Again, I’ll credit that to, in part, our current political polarization. Although I’d like to claim that better education on the subject is helping, too.

All of these shifts are slight, and shouldn’t be over-interpreted.

The latest findings, from a June 3-16 Gallup poll, have not changed significantly from the last reading in 2017. However, the 22% of Americans today who do not believe God had any role in human evolution marks a record high dating back to 1982. This figure has changed more than the other two have over the years and coincides with an increasing number of Americans saying they have no religious identification.

We might be edging upwards, but it’s a nail-biter with the final innings far off in the distance.