Moral Relativism

I’ve mentioned WEIRD on this blog before. For those who haven’t heard, the basic idea is that college students in North America are very unlike most people on Earth, yet psychology usually considers them type specimens for our entire species.[1] This calls into question a lot of “universals” proposed in psychology papers.

You might think morality would be a clear exception to that. Young people are fitter, old people have already contributed most of what they will to society; if one of each group is put in danger, we should try to save the former first before the latter. Right?

We are entering an age in which machines are tasked not only to promote well-being and minimize harm, but also to distribute the well-being they create, and the harm they cannot eliminate. Distribution of well-being and harm inevitably creates tradeoffs, whose resolution falls in the moral domain. Think of an autonomous vehicle that is about to crash, and cannot find a trajectory that would save everyone. Should it swerve onto one jaywalking teenager to spare its three elderly passengers? Even in the more common instances in which harm is not inevitable, but just possible, autonomous vehicles will need to decide how to divide up the risk of harm between the different stakeholders on the road. […]

… we designed the Moral Machine, a multilingual online ‘serious game’ for collecting large-scale data on how citizens would want autonomous vehicles to solve moral dilemmas in the context of unavoidable accidents. The Moral Machine attracted worldwide attention, and allowed us to collect 39.61 million decisions from 233 countries, dependencies, or territories.

Awad, Edmond, Sohan Dsouza, Richard Kim, Jonathan Schulz, Joseph Henrich, Azim Shariff, Jean-François Bonnefon, and Iyad Rahwan. “The Moral Machine Experiment.” Nature 563, no. 7729 (November 2018): 59. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0637-6.

Well, the data is in. I could do an entire blog post on just their summary, but for now merely note the benevolent sexism,[2] focus on punishment, classism, deontology, and cat hatred. That left bar chart is confusing; the bar between the elderly and the young isn’t indicating that both would be spared equally often, but that children would be spared 49 percentage points more often.

Figure 2 (global preferences) from Edmond et. al (2018).

Sure enough, there’s a clear preference for sparing the young over the elderly. But hold on here; this was an online survey, and the map of people playing the “game” shows a definite skew towards North America and Europe. This summary is “global” in that it aggregates all the data together, but not in the sense that it represents the globe’s preferences. We would do better to break down the responses into countries and analyze that.

First, we observe systematic differences between individualistic cultures and collectivistic cultures. Participants from individualistic cultures, which emphasize the distinctive value of each individual, show a stronger preference for sparing the greater number of characters (…). Furthermore, participants from collectivistic cultures, which emphasize the respect that is due to older members of the community, show a weaker preference for sparing younger characters (…). Because the preference for sparing the many and the preference for sparing the young are arguably the most important for policymakers to consider, this split between individualistic and collectivistic cultures may prove an important obstacle for universal machine ethics. …

We observe that prosperity (as indexed by GDP per capita) and the quality of rules and institutions (as indexed by the Rule of Law) correlate with a greater preference against pedestrians who cross illegally (…). In other words, participants from countries that are poorer and suffer from weaker institutions are more tolerant of pedestrians who cross illegally, presumably because of their experience of lower rule compliance and weaker punishment of rule deviation. This observation limits the generalizability of the recent German ethics guideline, for example, which state that “parties involved in the generation of mobility risks must not sacrifice non-involved parties.” …

… we observe that higher country-level economic inequality (as indexed by the country’s Gini coefficient) corresponds to how unequally characters of different social status are treated. Those from countries with less economic equality between the rich and poor also treat the rich and poor less equally in the Moral Machine. … the differential treatment of male and female characters in the Moral Machine corresponded to the country-level gender gap in health and survival (a composite in which higher scores indicated higher ratios of female to male life expectancy and sex ratio at birth—a marker of female infanticide and anti-female sex-selective abortion). In nearly all countries, participants showed a preference for female characters; however, this preference was stronger in nations with better health and survival prospects for women. In other words, in places where there is less devaluation of women’s lives in health and at birth, males are seen as more expendable in Moral Machine decision-making.[1]

Just consider the consequences of all this: do we have to change the moral calculus of a self-driving car if the owner sells it to someone in another country, or if they merely drive into one? If we tweak the calculus to remove all benevolent sexism, people will feel these cars are unfairly harming women; either we need to pair driver-less cars with a global education campaign to eliminate sexism, or there’ll be a mass movement to bake sexism into our cars. At the same time, self-driving cars will save quite a few lives no matter what moral system they follow; should we sweep all this variation under the rug, and focus on the greater good?

Our moral code depends strongly on where we live and how well we’re living, so how could we all agree to a universal moral code, let alone follow it? Non-normative moral relativism, contrary to the name, is the human norm, and imposing a universal moral code on us will cause all sorts of havoc.

Except when it comes to cats.

[HJH 2018-12-05: Huh, where did that graphic go? I’ve popped it back into place.]


[1] Henrich, Joseph, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan. “Beyond WEIRD: Towards a Broad-Based Behavioral Science.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33, no. 2–3 (June 2010): 111–35. doi:10.1017/S0140525X10000725.

[2] Glick, Peter, and Susan T. Fiske. “An Ambivalent Alliance: Hostile and Benevolent Sexism as Complementary Justifications for Gender Inequality.” American Psychologist 56, no. 2 (February 1, 2001): 109–18.

Secular Women Work

One reason why Adventure Time may be popular with adults is its complex emotional content. Via the creator, Pendleton Ward:

Dark comedies are my favorite, because I love that feeling – being happy and scared at the same time. It’s my favorite way to feel – when I’m on the edge of my seat but I’m happy, that sense of conflicting emotions. And there’s a lot of that in the show, I think.

The best example I can think of came in Season Four: the Ice King visited Marceline to get her help writing a song. Her conflicted emotions towards the Ice King are eventually explained via notes that he wrote to her. The result always crushes me, turning a comic character into a deeply tragic one.

I walk away from Secular Women Work in a similar state. It is very easy to look upon the works of others and despair, as a starter. Bria Crutchfield fundraised for and delivered four trucks’ worth of water and supplies to Flint, Michigan; Danielle White’s activism helped overturn HB2 in South Carolina, which discriminated against trans* people; Mandisa Thomas founded Black Nonbelievers, a thriving atheist community which has expanded into twelve cities; Lauren Lane founded and ran Skepticon for a decade; Debbie Goddard has been within organized skepticism/atheism for over sixteen years, splits their time between multiple organizations, and specializes in campus outreach. Every speaker was an activist with several wins under their belt, working to make this community a better place.

There was also despair over the state of the movement. One of the panelists mentioned graphic threats leveled by fellow atheists against herself. Bria mentioned how someone tried to get her fired for bringing water to Flint, during a panel devoted to the blowback activists face for doing their work. An offhand conversation I had turned to the women who have been driven from the movement due to harassment or worse. Five years ago, Melody Hensley gave me a warm hug to welcome me to Women in Secularism 2; roughly a year ago, she had to commit social media suicide to escape years of harassment directed at her, harassment that continues to this day. There are many more examples, most of which I’ve never heard.

But the human cost really hit home while I was packing to leave. Niki Massey’s name came up during this conference; she was someone I had the fortune to see at the first Secular Women Work, both on stage and at an after-conference dinner, but that was the extent of our connection. As a result, her death never carried the same impact for me that it had for so many others. While organizing my things, however, I reflected that three years prior Niki was doing the same thing. She too was organizing her things, she too was reflecting on her conference experience. Was she also thinking about attending the next one? It weighed heavily on me that she’d never have the option.

Still, while Secular Women Work did load me down, it was also a great release. Merely being in the same room as people I admired, soaking in the conversation, was a trip. There were fascinating discussions both on and off the stage, including a long one about IT management during a beautiful sunset. I found myself actively seeking light conversation, and I’m not the light conversation type. On the stage, Mandisa not only talked of her experience growing Black Nonbelievers, she also laid out her full management strategy. In a workshop, I scribbled down a few pages of notes as Elise Matthesen held forth on codes of conduct. Debbie pointed out there was little we could do about Trump, so she suggested redirecting our attention to local politics where we could have an impact. Cassidy Slinger argued that mission statements weren’t just for attracting new members, they also made it easier to kick troublemakers out. Mandisa made a similar point during her talk: joining organizations is a privilege, so no single member has a right to be a part of it. Gretchen Koch stated that all art is political, so decrying art for its politics is a smokescreen for arguing against politics you don’t like. There’s a lot more where that came from, I could easily fill another paragraph just using the notes I took during the direct action panel.

Inspiration for activism was in ample supply, too. During a workshop, Trinity Pixie argued the most effective way to help the trans* community was to donate cash directly to those in need. There’s a tonne of discrimination against them at work and elsewhere, so earning a paycheck is difficult, yet it is common for charity groups refuse to help trans* people. Donating directly also cuts out the overhead inherent to charities. Here’s a Twitter thread to get you started, but consider actively searching for such fundraisers if you have a little cash to spare. Even a few dollars could make a huge difference.

I walk away from many atheist/secular conferences giddy at hanging out with cool people. I walk away from Secular Women Work thinking deeply about myself, and how I can help the communities I belong to, and a little bummed at the state of the world, and giddy over cool people. It’s like the difference between snacking on candy and eating soy people.

Another One

One downside to floating around atheist/skeptic communities so long is that I’ve seen a lot of people leave. The most painful departures are the ones where people get frustrated with their peers over their inaction or inability to comprehend, or burn out from having to explain concepts that shouldn’t need explaining. These cases always leave me self-conscious of my own silence and inaction, wondering if I’d help stem the tide if I became more active.

For four years I have written and given talks about the same core message: Movement atheism must expand its ambitions to include the interests and needs of communities systematically disenfranchised in ways far more harrowing than merely existing as an atheist (within the US context).

Little changed in the five years that I was a part of organized secular communities. To what degree things have changed is debatable. For me, the point is that these spaces haven’t evolved to the point that they are welcoming or even ideal for certain groups of people.

Over time, I was able to better understand how this resistance to change that infests these spaces has a lot to do with select donors sustaining these spaces as well as those occupying executive and board leadership positions.

The thing is, the writing was always on the wall. It just took a considerable amount of time for me to admit it to myself.

Ouch. Sincere Kirabo has come a long way since 2015, when he earned a scholarship from American Atheists. He’s also been a writer for The Establishment, Huffington Post, the Good Men Project, and Everyday Feminism. He was the Social Justice Coordinator for the American Humanist Association until a week ago. He remains frustrated with the inaction of leaders within the atheist/skeptic movement. How could you not, when you’re dealing with shit like this:

Sexism continues to be a huge problem with this movement. And by “problem” I mean that it exists and most men choose to either deny it, minimize it, or blame victims.

I’m directly and indirectly connected to countless women who were once a part of this movement and have since left. It’s sad and disgusting and infuriating that there are whisper networks within secular circles so that women can warn each other about certain men rumored to be sexual harassers or abusers.

And yes, several women have reported instances of sexual misconduct and even rape to me. I’m not at liberty to discuss these incidents in any detail, but I will say that all three cases involve men who were at one point connected to organized humanism or atheism.

A lot of people have dropped out of the movement for a lot less.

My bandwidth has been depleted and there’s no way that I can fully recover and advance the causes that mean the most to me until I remove myself from spaces that preserve/propagate elitist rationalism, complacency, and general white nonsense.

I know some are interested in knowing what’s next for me. At this time, all I will say is that I and several others are in the process of building a platform dedicated to cultivating Black humanist culture with a focus on creating a world that honors the “radical” idea of free Black people. Details will follow in the near future.

… so it’s to Kirabo’s credit that he’s not dropping out of the movement. He’s switched from working for change within existing orgs, to creating his own organisations that are less problematic. I heartily approve, though had Kirabo dropped out instead I’d also approve. Even if the change in tactics doesn’t work, it’ll at least create a safe space for people to promote secularism without having to hold their nose over casual bigotry.

Go Local

Alas, Adam Lee beat me to this one, but it’s important enough to put on repeat.

For nearly two days, I had a strong flickering of hope. Buzzfeed’s article about Laurence Krauss came out, I was assessing the level of pushback, and I wasn’t seeing much of anything. Reddit threads were mixed, for instance. I went to the Friendly Atheist comment section expecting a cesspit, and was pleasantly surprised to see a mere stinkhole. Seeing a few diehard anti-SJW’s kick up a fuss is annoying, but it’s vastly preferable to a sea of neutral-ish randos. We’ve come a long way from the Grenade.

Then Sam Harris and Matt Dillahunty shit the bed, and CFI took over a week to suspend their relationship with Krauss (good) while stressing they follow their code of conduct (not buying that), and my hope that big organizations would make significant changes died.

But I was still left with a blog post, one that’s evergreen to these controversies. Each time a scandal pops up, I keep seeing people throwing up their hands and quitting the skeptic/atheist movement. While I have a lot of sympathy for the sentiment, and have even muted my own participation due to all the bullshit, I’d like to pitch the opposite idea: these controversies are precisely when you should be more involved.

Yeah, I know, you’d rather complain about the state of the movement, or claim there is no atheist movement because we’re too fractured. Problem is, by that metric there’s no feminist movement either: if you think atheism is fractured, look up the sex wars or the battle over radical feminism or the New Feminist movement or the debate between suffragists and suffragettes and so on and so on and so on. Gather more than one passionate idealist in a room, and they’ll quickly disagree on how to make those ideals come true no matter what the ideal or how many idealists you have. That’s the name of the game for any movement, progressive or otherwise.

You, as an atheist/skeptic, may not feel like you’re part of a movement because you’re not doing activism. That’s fine! But an atheist/skeptic movement still exists, whether you participate or not. Other people are still agitating on your behalf, and will be your representatives on the public stage. Because of that, these people are going to be considered the standard you are measured against. Hate to say it, but Laurence Krauss was right: Buzzfeed’s article is a smear on the atheist movement, because to most outsiders the movement consists of Krauss, Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, David Smalley, Jerry Coyne, Sargon of Akkad, the Amazing Atheist, and so on. Shit on them, and by extension all atheists are shat upon.

This applies to organizations, too. The CFI board have been a rolling dumpster fire for years now, but why have they been? Big organizations have big bureaucracy, insulating the organizers from the grassroots and driving them to look for big investors who typically skew conservative. This makes them slow to respond and tough to influence from the outside.

Local groups are the opposite. It’s a lot easier to sway them in your direction, though admittedly this cuts both ways. Even if your local group is a Chernobyl, though, you can always route around them and start up your own. Best of all, CFI is gonna take a petition to clean up their act from Wichita Freethinkers a lot more seriously than one from Jane C. Rando; if you start small, you can work your way up and gain more leverage than you ever would if you walked away or stayed silent.

The same thinking applies to the “big names” of atheism. Avoid’m, call them out when they’re wrong, make it loud and clear that they’re not the only game in town. Instead, try to promote locals who have relevant expertise; their speaker fees will be a lot cheaper, if only because of the travel cost, there’s more variety, and that variety leads to more in-depth conversations. Conversely, think about becoming a speaker or activist yourself. Yes, it stinks that speaker lists tend to be dominated by the big orgs, but if you record yourself giving a lecture and shop it around to local groups, you might get a few takers. A lot of middle-level speakers already do this, to some extent, so why not join in the fun?

Not in the mood to join an org or exercise your vocal skills? You’ve still got a strong lever in your hands: money! Five bucks means a lot less to CFI than it does to the Black Freethinkers of Minnesota. Chipping in funds locally will go a lot further to holding events and bringing in speakers, and gives you a disproportionate voice in how things are run. Alternatively, find an activist who’s trying to make the community a better place and toss some cash their way. It’s the easiest, most effective option on this list, yet our bias to “doing something” blinds us to that.

The assholery in the skeptic/atheist community may be difficult to eliminate, but it’s easier than you think to marginalize.

Now, just to make sure this point isn’t lost: if you feel the need to step away, you have my full sympathies. No-one should be forced to be an activist, and self care is not selfish. If you do have the strength, though, consider channeling your anger and frustration into pushing back.

Need more specific guidance? Tell you what, I’ll de-evergreen this post and name some specific people and organizations that I think are worth listening to, inviting, helping, or paying. Besides, it’ll be something to point and laugh at when Monette’s outed as three kids in a trench-coat.

Organizations

Freethought Blogs, The Orbit, and Skepticon: Oh hey, did you know that those three organizations and a few individuals are being sued by Richard Carrier? He’s grumpy they talked about his bad behaviour, apparently, and the legal fees are leeching away funds that could be used for other things. If you like what they do, toss some cash into their respective fundraisers. I know you’re sold on FtB if you’re reading this, but The Orbit also has cool bloggers too like Stephanie Zvan and Miri and Tony Thompson and Ania Onion Bula. I’ve been to Skepticon, and can vouch for their excellence. Oh, and they’re free to attend despite their massive size!

Secular Woman: This group loves to be a thorn in the side of the big orgs, most recently getting kicked out of the club for complaining too much. I’ve been an on-and-off member for years, attended their last conference, and been quite happy with their work. Attend their next conference or become a member, you know you want to.

Speakers

Honestly, you could do a lot worse than writing down the names of everyone participating in OrbitCon: Valerie Aurora, Jennifer Beahan, Brianne Bilyeu, William Brinkman, Chrisiosity, Greta Christina, Heina Dadabhoy, Eiynah, Debbie Goddard, Alyssa Gonzalez, Olivia James, Alix Jules, Lauren Lane, Trav Mamone, Marissa Alexa McCool, Monette Richards, Ari Stillman, Steve Shives, Mandisa Thomas, Kristi Winters, Callie Wright, Jessica Xiao. If these people are willing to set aside some time to chat online to a general audience, there’s a good chance they’d be willing to Skype into your group for a lecture.

I’d also like to add Sikivu Hutchinson, Lilandra Ra, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Alex Gabriel, James Croft, Marcus Ranum, and Crip Dyke. I could keep going, but I should really get this post out the door before the next controversy arrives. In the meantime, you know what to do.

Social Justice Is Core To Atheism/Skepticism

As Jordan Peterson’s become more and more influential, there’s been an uptick in the number of people writing about him. The most astute analysis I’ve seen yet comes in podcast form via CANADALAND, but a recent blog post by PZ Myers directed me to Peter Coffin’s excellent contribution as well as Shiv’s ongoing coverage.

I see a common thread to it all, though. Coffin in particular points out just how poor Peterson is at coming to the point. That twigged a memory; forgive this copy-paste from The Skeptic’s Dictionary, but the entire text is important.

Shotgunning: Shotgunning is a cold reading trick used by pseudo-psychics and false mediums. To convince one’s mark that one is truly in touch with the other world, one provides a large quantity of information, some of which is bound to seem appropriate. Shotgunning relies on subjective validation and selective thinking.

Peterson is using a fairly old trick: blast out as many points as you can, and hope that a few of them stick. It doesn’t matter if some or even most of them fail, because people will cling to the handful that resonate with them. As an added bonus, shotgunning adds cognitive load to anyone hoping to critique you. If you want to make your critique solid, you need to grasp the entire argument and hold it in memory, which is nearly impossible when it’s a small fraction of a wandering, wide-ranging rant. Coffin needed to piece together small segments of three separate interviews to illuminate one of Peterson’s beliefs, for instance, making it easy to toss out the “out-of-context” card. Some reviews of Peterson’s latest book back up Coffin’s observation, though.

the reader discovers that each of Peterson’s 12 rules is explained in an essay delivered in a baroque style that combines pull-your-socks-up scolding with footnoted references to academic papers and Blavatskyesque metaphysical flights. He likes to capitalise the word “Being” and also to talk about “fundamental, biological and non-arbitrary emergent truth”. Within a page, we are told that “expedience is cowardly, and shallow, and wrong” and “meaning is what emerges beautifully and profoundly like a newly formed rosebud opening itself out of nothingness into the light of sun and God”. The effect is bizarre, like being shouted at by a rugby coach in a sarong. […]

What makes this book so irritating is Peterson’s failure to follow many of the rules he sets out with such sententiousness. He does not “assume that the person he is listening to might know something he doesn’t”. He is far from “precise in his speech”, allowing his own foundational concepts (like “being” and “chaos”) to slide around until they lose any clear meaning. He is happy to dish out a stern injunction against straw-manning, but his “Postmodernists” and Marxists are the flimsiest of scarecrows, so his chest-thumping intellectual victories seem hollow.


Peterson has a knack for penning sentences that sound like deep wisdom at first glance but vanish into puffs of pseudo-profundity if you give them more than a second’s thought. Consider these: “Our eyes are always pointing at things we are interested in approaching, or investigating, or looking at, or having”; “In Paradise, everyone speaks the truth. That is what makes it Paradise.” It is no defence to say there are truths here clumsily expressed: rule 10 is “Be precise in your speech”.


  1. The content does not justify the length of the book. When you strip away the pseudo-profundity and verbosity, you’re left with rather simple ideas you could find in any self-help book or discover on your own. Rule # 1, for instance, essentially states that females prefer males with confidence and that success breeds confidence and further success. This is rather obvious without having to understand the evolutionary history of lobsters.
  2. The introduction of the book presents the author as an objective investigator of the truth, disillusioned by dogmatic ideology and prepared to demonstrate its dangers. He then proceeds to incessantly quote from the bible, perhaps the most dogmatic text ever written. I didn’t purchase the book to be preached at, and found it unexpected and highly obnoxious.I understand that the author is interested in story and “archetypes,” but the bible is quoted out of proportion. There are many ancient stories to choose from, each with endless interpretive possibilities, but the bible is, for some reason, the primary text. Now I’m sure this is fine with many people, but I was unpleasantly surprised that I had purchased a book on biblical criticism or theology.

The latter review brings up another good point: Peterson’s morality is fundamentalist Christian and heavily influenced by the Christian Bible. He’s recently denied believing in their god, during an interview about his book which obsessively quotes from their Holy Writ. Less than a year ago, he was arguing in apocalyptic tones that everyone is secretly Christian.

… and that brings me to the last line which is that “so that we can all stumble forward to the Kingdom of God” Why would I put it that way? The reason I put it that way is because, well first of all, everybody does really know what that means, even though they may not believe in it, but that doesn’t really matter, being I think that to believe is to act and not to spout a set of statements and it is certainly possible to act as if what you are attempting to do is to bring about the Kingdom of God, and I would say that doing so is something that will radically justify your miserable existence and that’s really what you need, is radical justification for your miserable existence, and because human beings are so powerful, really powerful beyond the limits of our imagination, we have no idea where our ultimate destiny might be, that it’s not clear what our limits are and then if we decided to improve the place, let’s say, and I would say, starting with ourselves, because that is the safest and humblest way to begin, that there’s no telling where we might end up.

And since we’re all fragile and vulnerable creatures, and we’re going to lose everything anyway, we might as well risk everything to obtain the highest possible good, and then that would make the misery that constitutes our life bearable as a consequence of our intrinsic nobility. And there’s nothing in that except the good. And so then why not do it? And so that’s what I would enjoy and encourage, encourage everyone to do because there’s nothing better to do than that and we might as well all do that which there is nothing better than!

You’d think the mix of fundamentalist Christianity and self-help psychobabble would set off alarm bells in atheist and skeptic minds. As PZ points out, though, it isn’t. Even some big names in the movement are falling for Peterson, like Michael Shermer. Sam Harris is more resistant, yet has talked with him twice already and has a third event upcoming (tickets start at $79!). Some of YouTube Atheism is all agog over Peterson, too. This seems paradoxical at first glance.

But there’s a simple calculus at work here: Peterson’s stance against social justice is highly valued by these people, so much so that it doesn’t trigger skepticism or easily swamps those concerns. We see the same thing in evangelical Christians’ support for Donald Trump: he may be highly immoral according to their worldview, but stacking the courts in their favor is so important that they’ll wallpaper over his moral failings. This segment of skeptics and atheists values social justice over skepticism and atheism, albeit as a target of scorn.

If we combine that segment of anti-social-justice skeptics/atheists with the pro- side, however, isn’t that more than half of all atheists and skeptics? And if more than half of us value social justice that highly, isn’t it fair to argue social justice is a core part of the atheist/skeptic movement? Even if my numbers are off, it’s amusing to compare the PZ Myers of 2009 to that of 2017. The Culture Wars have made us all more mindful of social justice, no matter what subculture we belong to, and in the case of atheism/skepticism gradually turned it into a defining issue. You can’t understand our subculture without knowing about the social justice Deep Rift, and that makes social justice critical to understanding us.

Where Have You Been?

Thomas Smith released a podcast episode about his time at MythCon. I have few nitpicks about it; the bit where he chastised people for calling the organizers “Nazis” because it didn’t help him came across as tone policing and a touch self-absorbed, and I was chuffed he didn’t mention Monette Richards when he listed off people who’d been right about what would happen. But that needs to be weighed against the rest of what he said on that podcast, and in particular an honest-to-goodness ultimatum he issued to Mythicist Milwaukee: change and disavow your problematic board members, or he’ll do everything he can to discourage people from their events. Never thought I’d hear something like that from him.

The kudos and love he’s getting right now are deserved. His performance at MythCon was the best anyone could hope for, based on the few scraps I’m seeing. And yet, those kudos come with a bitter taste. Steve Shives beat me to the reason why, and Smith himself has suggested he agrees with Shives, so in some sense what follows is redundant. But it’s a point that needs emphasis and repetition until it fully sinks in. [Read more…]

Mystery Cults and the Alt-Right

The chain of referrers on this is longer than the paragraph I wanted to share: via Salty Current and Josh Marshall, I was alerted to this tidbit of wisdom by John Herrman.

It is worth noting that the platforms most flamboyantly dedicated to a borrowed idea of free speech and assembly are the same ones that have struggled most intensely with groups of users who seek to organize and disrupt their platforms. A community of trolls on an internet platform is, in political terms, not totally unlike a fascist movement in a weak liberal democracy: It engages with and uses the rules and protections of the system it inhabits with the intent of subverting it and eventually remaking it in their image or, if that fails, merely destroying it.

I’m more in the camp of Josh Marshall than Herrman, though.

And yet, I think the Times article by John Herrman basically misses the mark in thinking that racist groups’ reaction to this banning was planned or showed some deeper understanding or even sympathy with the authoritarian nature of these platforms. […]

The mix of provocation, harassment and trolling is a major part and in some ways the totality of what the digital far-right is about. That’s why racist activists are so eager to give speeches at Berkeley. They get a reaction. Fights start. They create polarization. If some racist freak holds that speech is his backyard or basement with ten friends, who cares? No one does. No one even knows … That is truly the unique hell of online racist provocateurs: no one even knowing they’re ranting. A new version of Twitter for racists only will be the digital equivalent of the same thing.

You can’t change culture without engaging in it on some level, and you’re in the culture-changing business if you want to move from being a fringe to an accepted part of culture. Hence the focus on dog whistles and the worship of memesas a way of wedging fringe ideas into popular culture.

Kek, in the Alt-Right’s telling, is the “deity” of the semi-ironic “religion” the white nationalist movement has created for itself online — partly for amusement, as a way to troll liberals and self-righteous conservatives — and to make a political point. He is a god of chaos and darkness, with the head of a frog, the source of their memetic “magic,” to whom the Alt-Right and Donald Trump owe their success, according to their own explanations.

In many ways, Kek is the apotheosis of the bizarre alternative reality of the Alt-Right: at once absurdly juvenile, transgressive and racist, as well as reflecting a deeper, pseudo-intellectual purpose that lends it an appeal to young ideologues who fancy themselves deep thinkers. It dwells in that murky area they often occupy, between satire, irony, mockery, and serious ideology; Kek can be both a big joke to pull on liberals and a reflection of the Alt-Right’s own self-image as serious agents of chaos in modern society.

Most of all, Kek has become a kind of tribal marker of the Alt-Right: Its meaning obscure and unavailable to ordinary people — “normies,” in their lingo — referencing Kek is most often just a way of signaling to fellow conversants online that the writer embraces the principles of chaos and destruction that are central to Alt-Right thinking.

This combination of religious “mystery cults” and secular bigotry is potent and tough to scrub away. Fortunately, it can be diluted.

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.…

The problem with going more abstract, as Lee Atwater famously suggested, is that the emotional punch of the original is watered down, and in the natural drift of language you can lose control of where it goes. “States’ Rights” was a code-word for defending bigotry, but since then other interest groups have started using it for their own ends. At the same time, social justice advocates work hard to educate the public on what the dog whistle really means, changing it from covert to overt. Pepe the Frog is a great example of this. The memes that don’t escape into popular culture, such as the rebranding of the OK symbol, aren’t of much concern because “no one even knows” they exist and they fail to “disrupt [public] platforms.”

But if this bigotry has strong religious connotations, I have to ask: where’s the atheist community in all this? Shouldn’t we be leading the charge against this attempt to remake society in a racist image, due to our familiarity with the underlying tactics?

Dictionary Atheism and Morality

I’m quite late to the party, I see. Hopefully I can make up for it with a slightly different angle.

There are no shortage of atheists that fetishize the dictionary. “It’s just a lack of belief, nothing more!” they cry, “there’s no moral code attached to it!”

Bullshit. If there is no moral system, why then are dictionary atheists so insistent on being atheist?

Moral codes are proscriptive, while assertions and bare facts are descriptive. One tells us how the world ought to behave, the others how the world is or might be. This can get confusing, I’ll admit. Science is supposed to be in the “descriptive” bin, yet scientists make predictions about how the world ought to behave. It sounds very proscriptive, but what happens when reality and your statement conflict? Say I calculate the trajectory of an asteroid via Newtonian Mechanics, but observe it wanders off my predicted path. Which of these two must change to resolve the contradiction, reality or Newtonian Mechanics? Surely the latter, and that reveals it and similar scientific laws as a descriptive item: if the description is wrong, or in conflict with reality, it gets tossed.

But this division is further tested by things like evolution. If we ever did find find something that broke that theory, like a fossil rabbit in the Precambrian era, we are not justified in tossing evolution. The weight of all other evidence in favor of evolution makes it more likely we got something wrong then that evolution should be dust-binned. We again seem to be proscriptive.

That pile of evidence is our ticket back to descriptiveness, though. One bit of counter-evidence may fall flat, but a giant enough heap would not. There is only a finite amount of it favoring evolution, so in theory I can still pile up more counter-evidence and be forced to give that theory up in favor of reality, even if that’s impossible in practice.

No amount of evidential persuasion can force me to give up on a moral, in contrast. This too may seem strange; it may not be moral to kill a person, but wouldn’t it be moral to kill Hitler? The information we have about a scenario can dramatically shift the moral action.

But, importantly, it doesn’t shift the moral code. No sane moral system will hold you accountable for honest ignorance, and even the non-sane ones provide an “out” via (for instance) penitence or another loop on the karmic wheel. Instead, you apply the moral code to the knowledge you do have, a code that does not change over time. Slavery was just as bad in the past as it is now, what’s changed instead is us. We as moral agents have progressed, through education, reason, and the occasional violent rebellion. The moral code hasn’t changed, we have adjusted our reality to better match it. Again, we find morality is proscriptive.

So what are we to make of atheists that argue they can only follow the evidence? “Do not hold false beliefs” is proscriptive, because it tells us what to do, yet it’s a necessary assumption behind “I cannot believe in the gods, because there is insufficient evidence to warrant belief.” Having a moral code is an essential prerequisite for every atheist who isn’t that way out of ignorance, and that ignorance dissipates within seconds of hearing someone attempt to describe what a god is.

But… is it true that black people deserve to be paid less than whites? Is it true that women who dress provocatively deserved to be raped? Is it true that the poor are lazy and shiftless? All it takes to believe in any form of social justice is the moral “do not hold false beliefs” and evidence to support “claim X is false.” The minimal moral system for a hardline dictionary atheist is no different then the minimal moral system of a feminist!

Of course, there’s no reason you can’t toss extra morals into the mix. Social justice types would quickly add “allowing false beliefs to persist in others is wrong,” but so too would the dictionary atheist. How else could they justify trying to persuade others away from religion? No doubt those atheists would disavow any additional morals, but so too could a feminist. That one extra premise is enough to justify actively changing the culture we live in.

There might be other differences in the moral code between dictionary atheists and those promoting social justice, but it amounts to little more than window dressing; not only does being an atheist require a moral code, even the “dictionary” brand, the smallest possible code also supports feminists and others engaging in social justice.

So knock off the “atheism has no moral code” crap. It just ain’t true.