Quite some time ago there was an article written about the Gnu Atheist movement that said there were “deep rifts” among so-called adherents. Or maybe it was some random blog post. I don’t know and it’s not important. What I do know and what is important is that PZ Myers made a post about it and ever since it has become a rallying cry for people who don’t want to address division amongst Gnu Atheists. That is, whenever someone raises the possibility that there isn’t a notable cohesiveness amongst atheists out there, the response from certain people (usually those of the freethoughtblogs.com persuasion) is to declare “DEEP RIFTS!” and then say atheists are a diverse group and blah blah blah. It’s generally a cop-out.

That isn’t to say atheists aren’t a diverse group. We necessarily are. After all, atheism is purely descriptive (something PZ doesn’t understand). We have no more normative connection with each other than anyone else has with, well, anyone else. That changes slightly with Gnu Atheism, of course, since Gnu Atheism is about using a more forceful and critical voice concerning religion; Gnu atheists are united in the value that religion is, mostly, not a good thing and should be confronted. However, that’s where the inherently shared values end. After that point, there is no reason to expect one atheist to believe the same thing as the next. That fact is even more significant when we’re talking about atheism sans any qualifiers (such as Gnu).

This presents a problem for some people. There is a desire amongst a handful of people to create a more cohesive group, to coalesce around certain ideas. That’s understandable and no one can be faulted for wanting to do that. However, it can’t be done merely under the banner of atheism – again and again and again, atheism is purely descriptive. No matter how much so many theists want to accuse atheists of believing this or that moral dictate and no matter how much some atheists want to parade particular atheist values, it can’t be done. The whole idea is philosophically incoherent. So what’s the solution? Enter Atheism+:

It illustrates that we’re more than just “dictionary” atheists who happen to not believe in gods and that we want to be a positive force in the world. Commenter dcortesi suggested how this gets atheists out of the “negativity trap” that we so often find ourselves in, when people ask stuff like “What do you atheists do, besides sitting around not-praying, eh?”

We are…
Atheists plus we care about social justice,
Atheists plus we support women’s rights,
Atheists plus we protest racism,
Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia,
Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism.

This sounds all welcoming and nice, and only the fourth point could really exclude a lot of people (at least on paper). Because, who rejects social justice? Who rejects women’s rights? Who embraces racism? Who doesn’t see critical thinking favorably? Of course, it’s clear that all these things are speaking of liberal values, just as “family values” is code for a conservative point of view. And that’s the rub. It isn’t one that’s meant to be hidden, nor is anyone trying to hide it, but it isn’t out there on paper: Atheism+ is meant first as a label for atheist, (caricature) feminist liberals. It is meant to create an exclusionary community of individuals who…ah, hell. Let’s not kid ourselves. It’s Freethoughtblogs. It’s a label for just about everyone who blogs at freethoughtblogs.com. Anyone who thinks Rebecca Watson is a mook need not apply.

So where’s the problem, then? Who gives a rat’s ass if a bunch of people already deep in groupthink want to give themselves a new label? What difference could it possibly make? Well. The answer is simple. It’s all about division.

“DEEP RIFTS” has become an inside joke among a fair number of atheists, atheists who don’t think there is any real separation in the community, but there’s no denying it any longer. The entire mentality of Freethoughtblogs and now Atheism+ is George W. Bush’s old chestnut, “Either you’re with us or you’re against us.” Don’t believe me? Take a look:

Atheism+ is our movement. We will not consider you a part of it, we will not work with you, we will not befriend you. We will heretofore denounce you as the irrational or immoral scum you are (if such you are).

Check it out in practice:

Let me summarize: “You disagree in the least bit?! You’re evil and you can go fuck yourself!”

There are even attacks on Richard Dawkins for who-the-hell-knows-what:

That great controversialist, that person who has been called too confrontational, that person who told everyone religion is delusion, that person who has debated beloved religious leaders, that person who has publicly faced down the nastiest pundits of our time–Richard Dawkins–has no better means of telling you you’re wrong than posting passive-aggressive tweets trying to attack ad revenue.

It then shows a series of Tweets from Dawkins where he tells people not to help out sites that drum up false controversy. I don’t know, nor do I care, what the specific details are behind this, but we can presume it has something to do with Freethoughtblogs. Take a look at some of the comments:

“When I first identified as an atheist I thought Dawkins was great but, the more I listen to him, the more he rubs me the wrong way.”

“I’ve always had and always will have great respect for Richard Dawkins’ work as a science communicator and an advocate for atheism. But lately, I’ve been losing a lot of respect for him otherwise.”

“He’s saying there is no real problem with bigotry in this movement, that you all are lying for money? M’kay.”

When a community that owes a huge part of its existence to one man – there are plenty of others, but Dawkins is easily the most significant – when that community starts going after him (and with shit logic, at that), it becomes extremely difficult to deny that the likes of PZ and others have created significant division. The deep rifts in the atheist community are very real; I don’t think I need quotations around them at this point. Freethoughtblogs, PZ Myers, Jen McCreight, and the pitfalls of groupthink have caused an ideological split amongst atheists today. In one camp we have those who have agendas external to Gnu Atheism, external to the problem of religion and the promotion of science. In the other camp, we still have reason and a commitment to basic Humanistic values, a commitment to promote a world that rejects superstition while embracing the wonder of science. In this other camp, this older camp, we have a group of people who are still focused on the task at hand.

When FOX Noise calls a Republican a liar, he’s really a liar

Unless the writer of this article has large breasts and blonde hair, I don’t see a bright future for her at FOX Noise:

[T]o anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to facts, [Paul] Ryan’s [convention] speech was an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech. On this measure, while it was Romney who ran the Olympics, Ryan earned the gold.

The good news is that the Romney-Ryan campaign has likely created dozens of new jobs among the legions of additional fact checkers that media outlets are rushing to hire to sift through the mountain of cow dung that flowed from Ryan’s mouth. Said fact checkers have already condemned certain arguments that Ryan still irresponsibly repeated.

Fact: While Ryan tried to pin the downgrade of the United States’ credit rating on spending under President Obama, the credit rating was actually downgraded because Republicans threatened not to raise the debt ceiling.

Fact: While Ryan blamed President Obama for the shut down of a GM plant in Janesville, Wisconsin, the plant was actually closed under President George W. Bush. Ryan actually asked for federal spending to save the plant, while Romney has criticized the auto industry bailout that President Obama ultimately enacted to prevent other plants from closing.

Fact: Though Ryan insisted that President Obama wants to give all the credit for private sector success to government, that isn’t what the president said. Period.

Fact: Though Paul Ryan accused President Obama of taking $716 billion out of Medicare, the fact is that that amount was savings in Medicare reimbursement rates (which, incidentally, save Medicare recipients out-of-pocket costs, too) and Ryan himself embraced these savings in his budget plan.

Oh, pesky facts.

Marijuana, new evidence, and changing views

I haven’t written about the legalization of marijuana very much on FTSOS, but I have long been in favor of it. No study has ever established a causative link between marijuana and cancer (or any other major disease), and I don’t think it is particularly detrimental to society to allow people to smoke it. Moreover, criminalizing the plant only creates an atmosphere of violence and real crime, not to mention the creation of criminals from the non-criminals who get locked up for using or selling it. That said, however, some new evidence has forced me to reel my views back at least a little:

Researchers found persistent users of the drug, who started smoking it at school, had lower IQ scores as adults.

They were also significantly more likely to have attention and memory problems in later life, than their peers who abstained.

Furthermore, those who started as teenagers and used it heavily, but quit as adults, did not regain their full mental powers, found academics at King’s College London and Duke University in the US.

Those who started later in life – usually during their college years – also experienced a drop in IQ, but were able to recover relatively soon after quitting.

I don’t particularly have a horse in this race – believe it or not, I do not smoke anything and I have no desire to ever start – but I’ve seen plenty of promising people lose track of their lives because of weed. Some have gotten things back on track and the others certainly could do the same, but that’s lost time and productivity. I think the world would simply be a better place with legalization and regulation of marijuana, especially where minors are concerned – and there’s good evidence behind that view.

Good on you, Bill Nye. Good on you.

Bill Nye recently had this to say:

“I say to the grownups, ‘If you want to deny evolution and live in your world that’s completely inconsistent with everything we’ve observed in the universe that’s fine. But don’t make your kids do it,'” said Nye, best known as host of the educational TV series “Bill Nye the Science Guy.”…

“When you have a portion of the population that doesn’t believe in (evolution) it holds everybody back, really,” he said….

Nye said that while many adults may believe in creationism, children should be taught evolution in order to understand science. Absent a grasp of evolution, he said, “You’re just not going to get the right answers.” And he called evolution the “fundamental idea in all of life science, in all of biology.”

Teaching children the building blocks of science is essential for the country’s future, he added, saying, “We need them. We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future.”

Here is the video:

Circumcision: PZ Myers is still wrong

Update: This post has received a pingback from Jesse Bering. It does not support the contention he makes, nor does he make it clear which “outspoken atheist blogger” he means (me or PZ). I have asked him to correct his obvious error, but he refuses.

PZ Myers irresponsibly said this last year concerning circumcision:

The health benefits. Total bullshit. As one of the speakers in the movie explains, there have been progressive excuses: from it prevents masturbation to it prevents cancer to it prevents AIDS. The benefits all vanish with further studies and are all promoted by pro-circumcision organizations. It doesn’t even make sense: let’s not pretend people have been hacking at penises for millennia because there was a clinical study. Hey, let’s chop off our pinkie toes and then go looking for medical correlations!

One Pharyngula user meandered over here to defend PZ, but she was crushed under the weight of studies and evidence attesting to potential health benefits from circumcision. Now one major group has turned around on all those ‘vanishing benefits’:

The American Academy of Pediatrics on Monday announced its first major shift on circumcision in more than a decade, concluding that the health benefits of the procedure clearly outweigh any risks.

“There is clear evidence that supports the health benefits of circumcision,” said Susan Blank, who led the 14-member task force that formulated the new policy being published in the journal Pediatrics

For starters, Blank says, circumcision helps baby boys pretty much immediately.

“The health benefits of male circumcision include a drop in the risk of urinary tract infection in the first year of life by up to 90 percent,” she says.

But there’s a much bigger reason to do it, Blank said. Circumcised males are far less likely to get infected with a long list of sexually transmitted diseases.

“It drops the risk of heterosexual HIV acquisition by about 60 percent. It drops the risk of human papillomavirus [HPV], herpes virus and other infectious genital ulcers,” she says.

It also reduces the chances that men will spread HPV to their wives and girlfriends, protecting them from getting cervical cancer.

“We’ve reviewed the data and, you know, we have gone through them with a fine-tooth comb, and the data are pretty convincing,” she says.

So now the only question that remains is, When is PZ Myers going to recant his blatantly and irresponsibly false statement where he said that health benefits of circumcision vanish with further studies? It would also be nice if he could clarify whether or not the American Academy of Pediatrics is a “pro-circumcision organization”.

Thought of the day

I’ve only ever been to five weddings (at least as far as I remember) and I think it’s pretty clear cut: Buffets are where it’s at. It’s cheaper for the bride and groom (or their parents, as the case may be), plus the food is always just way better and with way more choices.

Here’s that lift again

I was looking through some old weight lifting books that once belonged to my grandfather when I came across an exercise I had written about in the past. At the time I called it the cleave and jerk. It turns out it as an alternate name:

I believe “one arm power jerk” is probably a more accurate name, but either way works. Of course, it’s all somewhat moot since this is a fairly old fashioned lift. In fact, aside from that excerpt/image coming from a book originally published in 1963, I was once doing this exercise when, just after I set the dumbbell down, an older gentlemen by the name of Ralph asked me if I had learned it from my grandfather. I asked if he had had the honor of knowing the man, but he said no. He just knew that there was no way I had learned it from a high school coach or any modern trainer.

On another note, here is a picture I found of my grandfather doing a similar exercise:

Again, this is only similar to the description above. The one arm power jerk involves an extended press of the bar as opposed to the resting of the upper arm on the ribcage. I’m not even sure if that’s safe. (I estimate there to be about 90 lbs in discs with the bar likely weighing 15 or 20 for a total of 105-110 lbs.)

Thought of the day

I recently saw a poll showing that some crazy percentage of Republicans – 67% – believe abortion is okay in instances of rape. That’s hilariously inconsistent with the argument that a fetus is a full-fledged human life and thus deserving of protection. What the hell argument distinguishes between a fetus conceived via consensual sex versus one conceived via rape?

I don’t want to defend Todd Akin

Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin has been all over the news for saying this in response to a question about abortion in the case of rape:

People always try to make that one of those things, ‘Oh, how do you slice this particularly tough sort of ethical question. It seems to me, first of all, what I understand from doctors is that’s really where, if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.

He then goes on to say that he opposes abortion in cases of rape. (Before I go on to address the big issue here – the use of the word “legitimate” – I want to note how surprising it is that this position isn’t more widespread in the anti-abortion camp. If the life of a child is what matters, then why is it important how that child was conceived? If a life is a life, then a life is a life. The argument that ‘every life matters’ doesn’t cease to be the right-wing’s cornerstone because of external reasons that do not reflect upon the innocence of the life itself.)

Anyway. The major issue at hand here is that Akin, apparently, distinguished between legitimate and, presumably, illegitimate rape. I think it is important, at this point, to listen to the actual clip from the interview:

I think this makes his words much more ambiguous. Let’s start with the first part of what he says. When quoted in writing, it sounds like he’s being dismissive and condescending to people who ‘always try to make that one of those tough ethical questions’. That is, if I had only read what he said, I would have placed his words in a context where he was practically saying that the issue is nothing more than a “gotcha question”. Listening to the video, it’s clear he’s just summarizing the nature of the argument. I think it’s clear he does think the question is a tough one. His inflection indicates that. But I never would have gotten that from just reading his quote.

Now let’s look at his use of the word “legitimate”. I think what he was trying to emphasize was a difference between consensual sex and rape. That is, he was trying to say the female body has a way of distinguishing between two types of sex acts (consensual and non-consensual). Of course, there is no way the female body does that, and I suspect he was merely repeating the all too common anti-abortion propaganda out there that has no regard for science.

To be sure, Akin used a stupid word. And to be extra sure, I think his position on abortion is just as stupid. However, I do not think that he meant to say that women who claim to be raped yet still get pregnant are lying, that their rapes were not legitimate. I think he believed, erroneously, that there is some physiological mechanism in place that prevents pregnancy in the case of rape, but he also believed that it was not 100% effective. (Again, his belief was wrong through and through, but I think that’s the position he held.)

I don’t want to defend Akin. And, frankly, part of me is glad that this has not only impacted his chance of election, but that it has placed a negative light on the Republican party all together. However, just as President Obama’s use of the word “that” did not mean he believed business owners did not build their own businesses, I do not think Akin’s use of the word “legitimate” means he thinks pregnant rape victims are liars. For me, this issue goes beyond the social concerns and the ethical issues. I very much see it as an issue of language. I’m not willing to grill someone over what I think was a slip of the tongue. Until I see evidence that Akin might actually believe that rape victims are liars – a certainly shitty position – I’m not jumping on the bandwagon.

Finally, let’s go back to what I said right before the video: “I think it is important, at this point, to listen to the actual clip from the interview.” I intentionally used the word “actual”; most people who read it likely assumed I was distinguishing between the video clip and the written quote. And I was. However, it would not be difficult to falsely interpret my sentence to mean that I think there is a real clip and a fake clip. Or, alternatively, it could be interpreted to mean that I think the written quote is somehow fabricated or quote-mined. None of that would be true, of course. All I was saying was that there is a difference between reading a quote and hearing a quote. The nature of language allows for broad interpretations, though – especially when there is an agenda-driven narrative already in place.

Curiosity: Doing it for the right reason

Mars rover Curiosity apparently has a frickin’ laser which it has used for the first time and for the right reason:

NASA’s Curiosity rover has zapped its first Martian rock, aiming its laser for the sake of science.

During the target practice on Sunday. Curiosity fired 30 pulses at a nearby rock over a 10-second window, burning a small hole.

Since landing in Gale Crater two weeks ago, the six-wheel rover has been checking out its instruments including the laser. During its two-year mission, Curiosity was expected to point the laser at various rocks as it drives toward Mount Sharp, a 3-mile-high mountain rising from the crater floor.

Oh. And it also has the goal of determining if Mars is inhabitable or something.