Why this offends me

PZ currently has a series of posts going where people write about why they are atheists. If anything, it serves to debunk his claim that atheists ought to be holding up a bunch of particular progressive views: people have their non-belief for a wide variety of reasons, not due to a certain set of normative views. Attempts to place everyone under the banner of atheism, as if that’s a coherent thing to do, just won’t work. For the nth time, atheism is 100% descriptive.

I’ve only read two of these posts and maybe skimmed another one or two. I don’t care that much about why Joe Schmo is an atheist. (It’s no better than Joe the Plumber from 2008.) But one of the two I’ve read caught my attention:

Simple. I read the bible. At 11. After reading through Norse, Roman, Egyptian and Greek mythology. I recognized they were the same. My mother was ecstatic, My father not so much. Oh, and I am African American. My mother was an atheist, and so are my children…they also came there with some guidance, but of their own volition.


I liked this from the get-go because of its punctuated pace. But then I got to the irrelevant part about Gwen being black. Who cares? I understand that atheism amongst blacks in America is lower than it is amongst whites, but it really isn’t important to the issue. A valid question, however, is why I have said in the title of this post that this offends me.

I remember in the first or second grade being given an assignment to write a paragraph. I chose to write about my dog. I can no longer recall the details of everything I said, but I distinctly remember writing the sentence, “He is a boy.” It was out of place and did not pertain to the topic sentence, so when the teacher asked people if they could identify possible changes that needed to be made, a few students pointed it out. The teacher agreed and I learned something.

And that brings me to why Gwen’s irrelevant line offends me: It’s bad writing. She’s black? Fine. Create a blog post expressing experiences had while living as a black atheist. It would be an interesting topic. But to randomly mention it is just an attempt to get PZ’s attention. Everyone knows he’s going to go out of his way to promote a member of a minority group if he can. There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with that, but he obviously did not pick Gwen’s piece because it was the cream of the crop. At best I can grant that this is effective rhetoric – it got her posted, after all – but it is not quality writing.

I have written at other times about my concern for language. (I especially liked a South Park episode that distinguished between the gendered sense of the word “fag” and the looser, more generalized use of the term.) I’m not pretending that I’m the perfect writer – I bet I have at least one non-typo error somewhere in this post – but I do have a genuine interest in how people use words. Language has an impact on us every single day. There are even comprehensive philosophies which use it as their cornerstones. It matters. It is the most common, most important way in which we communicate with each other over the course of our lives. Let’s not abuse and misuse it.

17 Responses

  1. You make a great point here. It’s true being religious is supposed to be part of the black experience in America, but there’s better ways to reveal it than that.

    As for his question, I grew up in a religious household and was a devote Lutheran, but the lack of evidence dragged me kicking and screaming into unbelief.

    I’d toyed with the idea that the Bible could have been made up and passed on as the truth to the next generation. When I was 14 I finally realized that there’s no way to tell the difference, and the supernatural view of the world wasn’t as convincing as the natural, science-based view.

  2. I’m not sure why that offends you.

    My reaction to the series is similar to yours. I mostly skip them or read a few lines. I happened to read this one. I saw the “black” reference, but just skipped past it. As you say, it is not relevant. But it is also not offensive.

    From Gwen’s point of view, it might be very relevant. She grew up in a racist society, where she is treated as a second class citizen. To me, and probably to you, we are all equal and the remark is of no relevance. But she sees in her own experience, that we are not all equal and that she is victim of some of the inequalities.

    I look forward to the day when we really are all equals, and when someone like Gwen can see that her race has no relevance. We have come some distance in that direction, but there is still a long way to go.

  3. I think you missed my point. I didn’t say it offends me because of its specific content. That isn’t any of my concern. I said it offends me because it’s bad writing.

  4. Who cares because you are offended? You are offended by assuming PZ posted it because” he goes out of his way to promote a member of the minority group” and by the writer who proclaimed her minority status in order to get published in the first place…both racist assumptions!!!!

  5. Paul, fuck you. I think it’s petty pandering that the writer wanted to appeal to PZ’s soft spot, and I think it’s shallow thinking that PZ may have published the letter for that reason, but I’m offended because it’s bad writing.

  6. Hit a sore spot did I? After all, “fuck you” is not a very scholarly response. I’m offended by your written response… not because of any assumptions I’m making…but because of your bad form.

    Since when does “bad writing” translate into writing which disagrees with your assumptions? Quite a leap of egotistic faith in yourself Michael. I believe a piece of writing can be good or bad not depending on substance but of form.

    So, it is bad writing because you think it is bad citing assumptions of substance rather than form.. That is why I said “who cares” if you are offended.

    Admit it, you made assumptions based upon race….let it go at that….it does not make you a racist.

  7. Except the assumption is based on EVIDENCE, not on race. PZ Myers has a proven track record in this area, and numerous examples of his followers’ posts demonstrate awareness of this inbuilt bias.

  8. We all make assumptions. We have to. We can’t occupy every body’s brain to verify the truth so we have to go with what is presented. However, the EVIDENCE in Michael’s posting was scanty.

    But assuming there was sufficient evidence, that PZ is biased
    towards promoting Black viewpoints and Blacks take advantage of his bias by self-identifying on his forum their minority status, does the substance of which they write make bad writing ? I think not.

    And is their some sort of nefarious plot between PZ and his black audience to promote minority causes on his blog at the expensive of the rest of whites? Or conversly, are their motives to seek a greater understanding of racial differences and bridge a known divide?

    I have no sufficient EVIDENCE that either is the case. I do have EVIDENCE Michael engaged in making racial assumptions….assumptions which can be detrimental towards Blacks. He based this blog on it.

    Again, I’m not calling Michael a racist. I do not believe he is. I have evidence from previous postings he is not. I now must state however everyone needs to be re-programed to rid themselves of racial attitudes and urge Michael to take the next step in examining his attitude on this subject.

  9. It is amazing how exactly wrong you are, Paul. There is zero substance in the statement “Oh, and I am African-American.” Substance depends upon context and the context in this case is on why people are atheists. Gwen, presumably, is not an atheist because she is black. And if she is, she has failed to explain how that is so.

    I do have EVIDENCE Michael engaged in making racial assumptions

    No, you do not. However, I do have plenty of evidence that you don’t read carefully. Go back and look at the original post. Can you tell me what assumptions I made? When did I comment on the actual substance of the post (i.e., the stuff pertaining to why she is an atheist, not the stuff you mistakenly think is substance). Did I say I thought her reasoning was good? Did I say it was bad? Did I say my opinion of her reasoning, whether good or bad, changed once I found out she was a bad writer?

    The fact is, Paul, you aren’t listening. You had this same problem on a post about oldness where I said my premise was not age but state of mind. You then said I was wrong and that oldness was a state of mind. It’s amazing. Pay attention. I don’t like Gwen’s post because it is written poorly. She pulled me in with a punctuated writing style, but then she lost me, just as I lost my second grade class in my paragraph, when she mentioned something which has zero bearing on what is being said.

    And even though you aren’t very good with identifying things like substance or evidence, you can look to all the links I posted in the original post to see evidence that I have often written about language, that it is a concern of mine and that I actually do care about it.

  10. I appreciate “fuck you” is not part of this response. I’m in basic disagreement with your premise that blackness has nothing to do with the writers atheism.

    As Neil pointed out….the inequalities towards Atheist in our Society (Bush Sr. “They shouldn’t be classified as being Citizens”) is pertinent to the inequalities the writer may have experienced as a black person…hence ” Oh, I’m an African American.” It could be a contributing factor in how she relates to the atheist community which I assume she was addressing.(I don’t follow PZ anymore)

    I’m not quite sure what standard you employ when you say” substance depends upon context” except the context by which you adjudicate writing styles appears to me to be much too narrow and one that fits your reality to the exclusion of any other reasonable interpretation.

    But your offense to this alleged bad writing carries with it racial assumptions you indeed did make…. PZ is guilty of pandering to blacks and the writer is guilty of capitalizing on his pandering because she is black. In defense of good writing, which I know you care about, you unnecessarily risked playing into racial stereotypes that blacks are given too much from society and that white liberals are all too willing to give.

    Your typical response to anyone who disagrees with you is “You did not read what I said” “Read it again” “You are not listening”. Perhaps I now realize why this is so…..you place writing in such a narrow context
    that it probably diminishes substance.

    Finally, I recall labelling you guilty of practising ageism for a good reason. Because of my advancing years, the reason now escapes me.

  11. Gwen expressed nothing about inequalities she faces as reasons for why she is an atheist. If she had have said, “I am an atheist and I face X injustices – I’ve grown familiar with these as a black person”, then she would be on topic and her skin color would be relevant. But as it stands, she has merely told us a random factoid. She may have said, “Oh, and Mount Everest is the highest mountain in the world.”

    When I say “substance depends upon context” what that means is whether something is substantial or not depends upon given parameters. For instance, Gwen is telling us why she is an atheist. Substantial things include her past experiences and reasons. She listed some reasons. She also may have indicated something pertaining to her experiences, but she has not explained how they are relevant anymore than how Mount Everest is relevant.

    I could write a post about why life is grand. I could go about on a number a reasons, my experiences, where I find joy, etc. I could then say (to apparently stick with the mountain theme), “Oh, and I climbed Kilimanjaro.” As it happens, there was one particularly incredible moment while the sun was rising. It’s something which will stick with me forever and it’s the most alive I’ve ever felt. But if I don’t tell you all that, “Oh, and I climbed Kilimanjaro” means nothing. It’s a random factoid which adds zero substance.

    My offense to this bad writing is independent of why I think PZ published it. If Jerry Coyne or Derpy McBloggerDerpington published it, I would be offended by the bad writing. I secondarily think the reason PZ allowed this bad writing* is because he has a particular agenda. That agenda, however, has no bearing on why this writing is bad. (For further evidence of why I think the writing is bad, see my previous three paragraphs, none of which mention PZ’s agenda.) I also fail to see how you can extrapolate that I am saying PZ’s actions demonstrate that I think blacks are given too much by whites. Black people are some of the poorest people in the nation while whites are the richest; the rich are favored in the U.S. over the poor. Ergo, blacks are not favored too much by whites.

    *Note, this sentence already assumes the writing is bad, not that it is bad because of anything to do with PZ.

  12. Finally, I recall labelling you guilty of practising ageism for a good reason. Because of my advancing years, the reason now escapes me.

    I admit this made me chuckle.

  13. You recall that because Michael is a raging ageist.

  14. We can end it here except, if you read my statement, I said “you risked playing into racial stereotypes”. I’m located in a real red neck area of the state far removed from the intelligentsia and I hear it all the time….. i.e stereotypes…”.Why don’t blacks earn what they want instead of demanding more more more “( i.e. blacks are lazy) and “Liberals should be shot” (are the cause of social unrest).

    I of course don’t believe in stereotypes but bigots do.

    But there again, I don’t think you risked it that much because bigots ( except for ageist) have no reason to read your blog.

  15. We’re okay with stereotyping republicans, conservatives, libertarians, and the religious though.


  16. NO!…they VOTE….on issues….it is not stereotyping when you have a significant group of people who agree with each other and express evidentiary agreement.

  17. Of course we all relapse into sterotypical thinking from time to time….like you did in your last post Nate. It’s not fatal though if you can get back on the track of good scientific thinking..

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