Thought of the day

I can’t stress this enough: feminism and atheism are not linked in any significant way.

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Where the real persecution is

Christians in America have this habit of pretending that they are some persecuted minority: Our Muslim, socialist, communist, Nazi, white-hating, Kenyan, Marxist president has a war on religion; every December the nation’s retailers wage a war on Christmas; atheists want to ban Christian children from praying to themselves in school. And around and around it goes, Christians pretending that everyone is out to get them, that they have no power, and if we don’t all act fast, religious persecutions and moral decay are on their way. It is all a bald lie. Christians have nothing but power. They hold almost every political seat in the nation, whether on the state or federal level. They dominate the positions of authority in our legal system. Do you need to get time taken off your prison sentence? Don’t say you’ve found deep thinking in moral philosophers. Say you’ve found God and maybe you’ll get to see your family sooner than your atheist cellmate (presuming you are one of the rare people to experience such a person in an American prison).

The real belief-based persecution of people in America happens to two main groups: Muslims and atheists. The former is a relatively new, reactionary persecution related to September 11, but the latter has been happening since the inception of the nation. Look at any time period in the nation’s history to see who is being persecuted and I guarantee atheists will be mentioned every single time. Somewhere there is always someone seething over the idea that a person might not only reject the idea of a god in all its forms, but might also be a good person while doing it. Such an audacious lifestyle has had a strong history of garnering more than its fair share of emotion-based vitriol.

Unfortunately, it isn’t all history. Currently there is one openly atheist member of Congress. Compare that to at least 6 open gays. Or look at the fact that 9% of Americans would never vote for a Jew, yet 49% refuse to ever vote for an atheist. And then there are the actual lives of declared atheists:

[Take the story] of Harry Purdy, born in Manchester, the son of an American GI father he did not know. A year after the US government opened up its records, the then 46-year-old stepped off the plane at Louisville Airport, Kentucky in May 1991 and became the first of the lost GI babies to be reunited with his father. Purdy eventually took up American citizenship and moved over to live in 1993.

“It was a good thing I met him for the first time,” he told me when we met at a roadside restaurant near his home, “but this is Kentucky, this is the Bible Belt. I’m an atheist.” One by one, members of his new family turned against him because of his lack of belief. Harry doesn’t see any of his American family any more. “The last one I saw was my cousin, Ronnie. Every time he invites me over to dinner, he turns to religion. Last time I saw him, I didn’t back out, I took him full on.

“I’ve been told things like ‘I hope you have an accident, die and go to hell.’ So that’s what I’ve been up against.”

Friends have rejected him. “I used to be a good running friend with somebody who doesn’t live far from here. I mentioned on one occasion that I was an atheist and I’ve never seen him again … I came here knowing this was the Bible Belt, but I didn’t realise it was a more like a totalitarian Christian society: you’re either one of them or you’re not and there’s no in between. So I’ve learnt this lesson, to keep it to myself as much as possible.”

It might be suggested that one “solution” is to hide one’s lack of belief. This isn’t going to solve any problems, and even if it did, it isn’t going to solve the right ones. It’s telling people to lie about what they believe because the majority doesn’t want to hear certain voices.

From the outside, keeping your views to yourself may not seem such a problem. But this is only if you think that it’s easy to live hiding who you really are from almost everyone around you, even close family. Take Matt Elder, who lives in Festus, Missouri (pop. 11,602). When I met him in a downtown St Louis diner, he came across as a cheerful, friendly guy, not someone living under a kind of persecution. “They’re not going to cut me off or throw me to the wolves,” he says of his Christian family and in-laws. But if Elder is typical of the trying-to-keep-their-heads-down atheists scattered around the Bible Belt, then his story shows that none of them has it easy.

Elder says with a smile that when he goes out wearing his black T-shirt with its large scarlet A – the symbol of the atheist Out Campaign inspired by Richard Dawkins – “you’ll see mothers bring their children a little closer and step a little quickly away”. Elder is not militant and tries to be as accommodating as he can without being a hypocrite. “I would go to church with my wife about every week, just for community. But now, I don’t go because there’s really weird conflicts.” Weirdest of all is his regular appearance on the weekly prayer list. “There are times when people stand up and say stuff out loud to every­one else, and my wife did that while I was there.” I asked him what she said, and his paraphrase was: “My husband no longer believes in God and I’m scared for him and my family.” No wonder Elder feels that now at the church “there’s a target on my back”.

The statistics aren’t any better:

A now famous University of Minnesota study concluded that Americans ranked atheists lower than Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society”. Nearly 48 per cent said they “would disapprove if my child wanted to marry a member of this group” (many more than the next most unpopular category, Muslims, at 33.5 per cent).

I can say I’ve personally experienced someone turning me down for the explicit reason that I’m an atheist. I’m not so arrogant as to pretend there couldn’t be other factors, but it isn’t like people are in the habit of letting others down easy by going straight to religious (and non-religious) beliefs. Of course, it is understandable that a person would want to date a like-minded person, but that isn’t what the above poll was about. People were asked how they would feel about their child dating an atheist. The fact that there is a nearly 50% chance my would-be date’s parents were happy with her decision without knowing a thing about me is distressing. It betrays the prejudice which underlies so many of the misconceptions religious folks have about atheists.

A real solution to all these problems is for atheists to make their presence known. That means, when asked or relevant, to proudly state “I am an atheist” in front of absolutely anyone. No quibbling with “non-believer” or other terms of avoidance. Those phrases should be reserved for specific instances and linguistic purposes. If we can’t get rid of the stigma around the word “atheist”, then how can meaningful progress be had?

Some people will disagree with that strategy (such as Sam Harris, as quoted in the article), but for people to know they know atheists is the first step. This isn’t about trumpeting atheism around the public square or getting in anyone’s face; this strategy is not exclusive to Gnu atheists. Anyone who believes there is insufficient evidence for God in the same way there is insufficient evidence for celestial teapots ought to don a scarlet A, whether literally or figuratively. Letting people know we exist is the best way to combat the systematic scorn and persecution so many atheists face in America.

Why a new campaign for black atheists does not offend me

The above title may seem odd, but it is a reference to a post I wrote back in October. In that post I wrote about a short piece by a black atheist explaining why she is an atheist. Her basic point was that she didn’t see a distinction between modern day religion and older religions we now accept as fictional, so she concluded that all religion is false. It was faulty reasoning, but that isn’t what got me. What drew my ire was that she then randomly mentioned the color of her skin. I considered that bad writing because it was a non-sequitur which she didn’t even bother to explain. I’m sure being black has contributed greatly to her perspective in life, but failing to draw a distinction between religious premises is not race-dependent. And if it is, she didn’t bother to tell anyone why.

One result of my response post was some misunderstanding by FTSOS readers. Occasional commenter Paul Kussmann, for instance, claimed I was making racial assumptions. Neil Rickert thought I was offended by the specific content rather than the writing itself. Both were wrong, Paul less understandably so than Neil. The fact is, I cringe at bad writing. In that fact is not a claim on my part to be a great writer (though I think of my skills in the area as quite strong). I simply have a considerable concern for language.

This all brings me to African Americans for Humanism. The group is currently running an ad campaign to bring atheism to the black community and/or encourage black atheists to be more vocal. It’s a good campaign because of the high degree of religiosity amongst blacks. We need to discourage religious belief everywhere, but especially where it holds strong. I support the goals of the AAH and I hope it succeeds.

All that said, could it be rightly claimed that any of this offends me? Of course not. I’ve never denied that being a black atheist is often very different from being a white atheist. It’s important to acknowledge, discuss, and understand these distinctions in order to better advance the cause of humanists and Gnu atheists. I’m confident I have never once expressed a problem with any of this. The only way I would have a qualm with the AAH or its goals is if they were ever expressed in a poorly organized, haphazardly composed, or badly written fashion.

Language matters.

Peter Palumbo is a tool

Shortly after succeeding in getting her school to take down its unconstitutional endorsement of religion, student Jessica Ahlquist was inundated with insults and harassment. Some of it she got from fellow students, but most of it came by way of the Internet. I’ve seen coverage of this all of the place and here are my issues with it:

First, it’s terrible that she is being persecuted for standing up for the separation of church and state. People who don’t recognize the greatness of what she did are blinded purely by their belief that Christianity is somehow supposed to be given uber-respect at every turn.

Second, most of the coverage I have seen criticizes the abusive Christians by saying something like, “Oh, how Christian of you.” Yeah. Yeah, it is Christian of them. The whole point of virtually every religion is to not accept the beliefs of others. The fact that Christianity, like Islam, Judaism, and most other religions, does not distinguish between non-acceptance and intolerance compounds the problem. This is exactly what we should expect of the religious, so let’s do away with the sarcasm, as if we actually think they should be held to a higher standard. We should be prepared for this sort of reaction. Always.

Third, some of the comments directed towards Jessica have been to say she will burn in hell. These are held up as if they are just the worst thing in the world. I’ve got to say to them, so what? Yes, people believe in magical places where our consciousness – ya know, that thing that is a product of the physical forces within our brains – will magically reassemble in some other, magical land, only to be tortured eternally by way of an evil-creating yet somehow loving, magical god. It would be dismissed as kook talk if it wasn’t so mainstream.

All that said, I’m not surprised at the reaction. Aside from Christians tending to do this sort of thing, I expect assholery on the Internet. People aren’t particularly accountable, and even when they forgo anonymity, they probably won’t have to face up to their bullshit unless they happen to have celebrity status. Or if they happen to be a state representative, such as Peter Palumbo:

In what many find to be an open display of bigotry, Rhode Island State Representative Peter Palumbo recently referred to teen atheist Jessica Ahlquist as “an evil little thing.”

In addition to calling Ahlquist an “evil little thing,” Palumbo also made the claim that “she (Ahlquist) is being coerced by evil people;” the implication being that atheists and other secular Americans are “evil.”

Palumbo made his offensive and insulting remarks late last week on the John DePetro Radio Show, a Rhode Island talk radio program.

I don’t know all the details of the interview, but from what I’ve read, this is not bigotry. It’s a stupid and wildly inappropriate thing to say about a high school student, but it isn’t bigotry.

Palumbo, presumably a wishful pal of Lieutenant Columbo, is doing little more than displaying his ignorance. He is so accustomed to being in the dominate group that when someone challenges his assumed superiority he can’t help but pull out every stereotype he has ever been taught. The guy needs a good education. My guess is he failed to receive one, in part, because until now it has been allowed to distract and indoctrinate students with religious drivel in Rhode Island.

At any rate, I hope Peter Palumbo burns in hell.

Rhode Island prayer mural ordered taken down

A high school in Rhode Island had an obviously illegal prayer banner hanging on its walls. It opened with “Our Heavenly Father” and closed with “Amen”. Student Jessica Ahlquist pointed out that the school can’t go about promoting Christianity, so they ought to take it down. She made a few direct pleas, spoke with administrators, and made a Facebook page for starters. In other words, she had a perfectly reasonable and measured initial response. So you’ll never – never! – believe what happened next: the Christians and high school administrators were stubborn and said “no”. I know, I know. Who would have thought people who supported Christianity and chose to spend their lives controlling teenagers would be stubborn. I swear, I can’t think of more than three or four thousand instances of stubborn actions from the people who ran my high school.

Anyway. Once the mooks rebuffed the constitutional efforts of one of their better students, Ahlquist sued. And won:

U.S. District Judge Ronald Lagueux rejected the school’s claims that the message in the mural – which opens with “Our Heavenly Father” and closes with “Amen” – was purely secular.

“No amount of debate can make the School Prayer anything other than a prayer, and a Christian one at that,” Lagueux wrote in a 40-page opinion.

And now the school has a short period in which it must remove the mural. This is excellent. No one should be using public funds to promote any particular religion. This is especially true when those subjected to that promotion are impressionable teenagers.

Of course, the school had the audacity to claim the prayer was somehow secular in nature. I can’t help but feel everyone involved knew that was a lie. But even if they didn’t, it’s still a stupid argument. I’ll let the judge take this one:

[N]o amount of history and tradition can cure a constitutional infraction.

Not even for you Christians out there.

Eternal meaninglessness

It is often the cry of theists that atheism makes everything meaningless. They equate and conflate it with nihilism, claiming it reduces all of human existence to nothingness because life will eventually end and no one will remember anything. To this I have two responses, one pragmatic and one philosophical. First, let me quote the late Christopher Hitchens in Hitch-22:

It could be that all existence is a pointless joke, but it is not in fact possible to live one’s everyday life as if this were so.

Go ahead. Try and live life as a nihilist. See if that is even possible. See if one’s interactions with others somehow cease to have any meaning.

On the philosophical end, what is this nonsense that assumes that for something to have meaning, it must also be remembered? Of course life still has meaning without some external entity remembering it forever. Saying otherwise is an additional, unnecessary attachment to what “meaning” itself means. Moreover, those who argue that for something to have meaning it must never be forgotten are gaming the issue. They are defining “meaning” itself to mean unending; it’s circular. That is, they are trying to argue that for something to have meaning it must be unending, but they seek to prove their point by effectively defining “meaning” to mean “unending and eternal” in the first place.

So let’s get our definitions and arguments straight and linear. “Meaning” simply refers to the level and sort of value and importance one places on something. I place value and importance on many things, including science and writing. They hold great meaning to me. No one can say otherwise. Furthermore, the fact that I will end does not magically disappear the history of that meaning. It will still have existed because, unless someone has evidence to the contrary, the Universe exists independently of me. That means that every event which has happened, whether consciously remembered or not, has happened no matter what I do, no matter what anyone remembers, and no matter whether there is a god or not.

Now let’s flip the coin. The theistic argument is that for meaning to be meaning, it must also be eternal. This is really no more than a value statement on their part; it is not a descriptive argument of reality and can thus be dismissed as actually being factual. But let’s pretend it is correct. What does that mean?

For something to be eternal means that it has no reference to time. It is not possible to look back on something that has happened because “has happened” holds no significance. This means that it is impossible to compare to events. Indeed, it is impossible, under this scenario, to compare two emotions or thoughts or feelings. Happiness will hold no meaning if it cannot be contrasted with sadness. Anger is incoherent if there is no pleasure or joy. Literally every single human concept is rendered meaningless by the claim that eternity is how something derives meaning. That is, “meaning must be eternal to mean anything” is inherently self-contradictory.

The theistic argument is wrong in its wrongness. First, atheism (which is not nihilism) allows for meaning because “meaning” itself refers to the importance and value placed on a thing or idea by humans (or any conscious being). Attempts to play semantics and redefine “meaning” aren’t going to fly. Second, even if we did allow theists to game the argument, what they are saying still fails because eternity takes all meaning from everything. It inherently disallows and denies reference, providing an incoherent path for arguing in favor of something (“meaning”) which is itself premised in reference.

Mallorie Nasrallah

Mallorie Nasrallah is an active atheist who recently had the gall – the god damned gall! – to say that other people do not speak for her. While anyone who has wasted their time reading the feminist shell games that have dominated the atheist community as of late knows, there have been a lot of accusations that there is some especially awful stuff that happens to women at atheist conventions and atheist websites. Sometimes this is true. Other times, such as when Rebecca Watson faced the horror of being asked a question, saying “no”, and having the guy take “no” for an answer, it is not true. The latter is the case most of the time. Mallorie recognizes this:

For as long as I can remember I have been welcomed in to communities which were generally considered “sausage fests”. If not for the constant noting of this fact I would have never noticed. You guys were always just
my friends.

As I’ve gotten older these subcultures have become more vocal about wanting to include more women, the discussion has become “how can we make the community more welcoming to women”.

As a woman who has been here all along this is distressing to me, I love you guys for who you are, from my table-top strategy gaming group though my political debate forum right in to the skeptical community. You have never been anything but awesome and welcoming. Who made you think you weren’t?

I am here, in my various communities because I like you guys, and I like the basis of the movement. The idea that you have to set time aside to cater to me, because my vagina imbues me with some special needs is becoming increasingly insulting. These communities are about our minds, not our genitals and as far as I can tell my mind is just like yours.

The point is obvious. Her experience has been horribly misrepresented by the feminists faction of the atheist community. They aren’t interested in presenting reality but rather an agenda-driven account of what is happening. Again, look at the Rebecca Watson case. A man asked her back to his hotel room. He did so in an elevator, indicating to me that he was likely too nervous to ask the question in front of a bunch of people and the elevator was his first chance. He should have re-thought that one, if only because it makes for an awkward situation, but regardless, when Watson said “no”, his response was effectively, “Okay”, and that was that. Not a bit of sexism or misogyny to be found anywhere. Any reasonable person – and that includes Mallorie – will recognize the facts as such.

I am writing about this for two reasons. First, I want to once again express my exacerbation at this conflation between atheism and feminism. Neither one has anything to do with the other. Moreover, “new atheism” is about the evils and harm of religion. That needs to be the primary focus. If other people wish to focus on feminism, do it elsewhere. Second, Friendly Atheist linked to Mallorie’s Facebook profile. (Mallorie responded in the thread and did so by logging in via her profile.) I sent her a message saying she did a good job on the article, and then I sent a friend request. She accepted. From what I’ve read (most of which is public anyway), she hasn’t gotten much professional publicity from this. That wasn’t her intent at all, plus her profession is photography so this sort of topic isn’t going to help much anyway, but I figured I would do what I could to promote her work. It actually is of a pretty good quality. Take a look here and here.

I’m glad we have voices like Mallorie’s. Strong women who don’t want special care taken for them is exactly what the rhetoric of the feminist movement is seeking. It just so happens that it is those outside the movement who recognize how to achieve this.