Set it free

It isn’t so much atheism that will set one’s mind free (how would it?), but the rejection of religion certainly will.

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.

The decline of religion

There is a post making the blogging rounds about the decline of religion and rise of non-belief amongst the younger generations. It has some interesting facts:

  • The number of secular student groups is growing rapidly.
  •   The more that people stand up and are vocal about their unbelief, the more it encourages others to do the same. As [Adam] Lee notes, “psychological experiments [find] that it’s much easier to resist peer pressure if you have even one other person standing with you.) Student activists like the ones I’ve mentioned are no longer just scattered voices in the crowd; they’re the leading edge of a wave.”
  • Atheism increases with each new generation in America.

There are links embedded within that writing. Go to the original link to see them.

The fact is, more and more people are declaring their lack of religion or even outright atheism as the years march on and younger generations come of age. This has been a distinct trend since the end of WW2: each generation of young people has more nonbelievers than the previous generation of young people. Currently we have 25-30% of people in their 20’s declaring they have no religion, a number that is four times higher than for any other period.

The originator of this blogging meme, Adam Lee, has a good idea why we’re seeing this decline in religious affiliation:

I’d love to say that we atheists did it all ourselves; I’d love to be able to say that our dazzling wit and slashing rhetorical attacks are persuading people to abandon organized religion in droves. But the truth is that the churches’ wounds are largely self-inflicted. By obstinately clinging to prejudices that the rest of society is moving beyond, they’re in the process of making themselves irrelevant. In fact, there are indications that it’s a vicious circle: as churches become less tolerant and more conservative, their younger and more progressive members depart, which makes their average membership still more conservative, which accelerates the progressive exodus still further, and so on.

I am more willing to give some of the credit to the Gnu Atheists. It isn’t that we’ve turned so many people to atheism – these numbers primarily reflect a lack of religious affiliation, not atheism – but modern atheists have helped to create an environment where it is okay to criticize religion more openly. Part of that has been due to the writings of people like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers, but an even bigger part has to do with the rise of the Internet. Atheists don’t tend to get together very easily. We have no unifying philosophy or normative claims, so it makes things difficult. But with the Internet, it’s a matter of a simple click to a website. This has given us more of a voice, and it has made people realize there are more of us than they thought. That not only gets people thinking – I remember as a kid at a Catholic school being astonished to hear atheists even existed – but it brings more people out of the atheist closet. After all, nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd of people.

How do believers still not get what atheism is?

Some schmo of whom I’ve never heard, Be Scofield, has an article about 5 Myths Atheists Believe About Religion. He actually just lists points of disagreement, semantics, and his own inaccurate characterizations. Greta Christina takes him apart rather systematically on all that, but I want to focus on one thing he said in his assertion that atheists believe atheism is synonymous with being anti-religious:

This false belief stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what atheism and religion are. Atheism is not in any way shape or form related to an opinion about religion. It is simply the assertion that god does not exist, nothing more and nothing less. Religion is a broad category that encompasses traditions which include supernatural belief and those that do not.

He starts out okay: atheism is not related to opinions about religion. Unfortunately, he veers off the road in his very next sentence when he purports that atheism bears a relation to positive claims. It doesn’t. For the nth time, atheism is descriptive. I’m so tired of people saying otherwise that at this point I have to conclude that people like Scofield are either extremely ignorant, extremely stupid, or extremely dishonest.

Just consider this simple thought experiment: If I ask you to finish this sentence, can you? “I am an atheist, therefore I believe…” What would you say? You can tell me what I don’t believe, sure. You can say I don’t believe there are any gods and you would be correct. But if you switch the sentence around and say I believe there are no gods, you have profoundly changed the sentence. Here’s why.

I don’t believe there are any gods” tells you about an absence of belief I have. One can play semantics and claim this is itself a belief, but such a claim would be trivial. All I have told you is that I do not hold a certain belief. That does not mean I think the belief is itself false – though I may for reasons unrelated to atheism.

“I believe there are no gods” implies certainty and is a positive claim. But very few atheists ever make such a claim, and when they do, they aren’t doing so out of atheism. After all, is there evidence against gods? Perhaps we can trace the origins of particular gods back to mistaken and sometimes dishonest scribes, and that will give us strong suspicion, but that is only good circumstantial evidence. It isn’t proof. And if we’re talking about more nebulous, general concepts of gods, then we’re simply stuck trying to prove a negative. It isn’t going to happen and this is why atheists tend to not make these sort of positive claims.

That said, it may well be the case that atheists make claims in practical language. “There is no god” is a common statement made with such practicality. While it is ultimately backed with skepticism and a demand for evidence, that doesn’t make for such a good slogan. Furthermore, it wouldn’t be very pragmatic to begin every discussion about gods with an explanation such as this one. Atheists such as Dawkins, Coyne, Hitchens, the blogging community, myself and others recognize this and turn to simplified rhetoric in order to get broader – and certainly more important – points across. But that does not excuse Scofield for inaccurately defining atheism when his entire premise rested on that definition itself.

Those mole hills are looking mighty big these days

I’ve lightly been following some incident that happened after an atheist conference. Rebecca Watson suffered the indignity of being talk to by some guy. (Relevant part starts around 4:40.)

Presuming you’re too lazy to watch the video, she was at a bar with a number of people, decided to go back to her room around 4 a.m., and when she got on the elevator so did a guy who was apparently engaged in previous group conversation (or at least listening). The guy said he found the talk she gave earlier interesting and asked if she wanted to go back to his hotel room for a cup of coffee to discuss things more. It’s not a very good line, but I bet it has worked more than once. (And who knows, maybe he was being genuine. I doubt it, but let’s at least throw it out there.) She was uncomfortable and declined. And that was that – he didn’t press further, nor did he lay a finger on her.

Fast forward a bit and PZ makes a post on the topic. His focus was on an issue that arose with Watson calling out her critics by their names. Apparently one person was a student or some such thing and Watson really singled her out. I don’t know (or care) enough about the details to really give it a fair shake, but those sort of criticisms can be dicey. Hell, I’ve put out a publication around my school where I really wanted to criticize the worst professor I have ever had. I decided against it for various reasons, not the least of which was because those sort of things aren’t always clear. Besides, there are more appropriate channels.

Next PZ made a post where he gave no-brainer advice to avoid being a creeper. It was condescending, even if largely right, and I can only be thankful he stopped before giving sex advice.

It is from that post, however, that things get interesting. Richard Dawkins jumped into the comment section and gave his position in response to another user:

Dear Muslima

Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so . . .

And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.


And how have people interpreted that? Poorly:

However, the existence of greater crimes does not excuse lesser crimes, and no one has even tried to equate this incident to any of the horrors above. What these situations demand is an appropriate level of response

The elevator incident demands…a personal rejection and a woman nicely suggesting to the atheist community that they avoid doing that.

No, wrong. The elevator incident demands a personal rejection and some better communication skills for that guy, but it certainly does not demand the damnation of the entire atheist community.

The point Dawkins was making was not that, ‘Oh, there are worst things in the world, so get over it.’ He isn’t stupid. He was making the point that even if this is a great offense (and it isn’t), the response it has gotten makes a mountain out of a mole hill. A man asking a woman to go back to his room for coffee, whether innocent or with the greatest of hopes in his mind, might deserve a quick admonishment of the guy later on – if a friend of mine did that, I would tell him he should have chosen a better location than in a small, temporarily inescapable room. And if he hadn’t personally talked to the woman at all prior to that moment, I would wonder why he thought he was in a position to ask her anything close to that – and I would tell him he had been less than smooth. What I wouldn’t have done was create a video about the incident, make the guy out to be the greatest misogynist in the world, and condemn an entire group of people. Dawkins was advocating for some perspective.

And hell, has anyone stopped to think that maybe this guy just isn’t very good at ‘picking up’ women? His line was weak, he apparently didn’t speak with Watson directly (or at least not much), and he didn’t consider his location very well. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if he chose the elevator because it was private. I don’t know many guys who are willing to ask women out or invite them some place in front of a group of people. Just tonight, actually, I saw a TV show that featured a man talking to a beautiful woman in front of his friends. It struck me as immediately odd because that sort of scenario is rare, at least among strangers and near-strangers. I don’t want to defend the guy on this basis, but I doubt anyone, especially PZ, even bothered to consider it.

It’s this sort of stuff that hurts feminism.

Update: I’ve just seen a second response from Dawkins:

No I wasn’t making that argument. Here’s the argument I was making. The man in the elevator didn’t physically touch her, didn’t attempt to bar her way out of the elevator, didn’t even use foul language at her. He spoke some words to her. Just words. She no doubt replied with words. That was that. Words. Only words, and apparently quite polite words at that.

If she felt his behaviour was creepy, that was her privilege, just as it was the Catholics’ privilege to feel offended and hurt when PZ nailed the cracker. PZ didn’t physically strike any Catholics. All he did was nail a wafer, and he was absolutely right to do so because the heightened value of the wafer was a fantasy in the minds of the offended Catholics. Similarly, Rebecca’s feeling that the man’s proposition was ‘creepy’ was her own interpretation of his behaviour, presumably not his. She was probably offended to about the same extent as I am offended if a man gets into an elevator with me chewing gum. But he does me no physical damage and I simply grin and bear it until either I or he gets out of the elevator. It would be different if he physically attacked me.

Muslim women suffer physically from misogyny, their lives are substantially damaged by religiously inspired misogyny. Not just words, real deeds, painful, physical deeds, physical privations, legally sanctioned demeanings. The equivalent would be if PZ had nailed not a cracker but a Catholic. Then they’d have had good reason to complain.


Naturally, the interpretation here has been that Dawkins thinks words don’t matter. He still isn’t stupid. He makes the point that the man was polite and did no harm to the woman. She may have been offended, but he caused her no turmoil from the forgettable incident. Perhaps if he was rude, or cursing, or plainly asked her if she wanted to fuck, then hey, we’ve got ourselves something disgusting. But he asked her for a cup of coffee. That does not get us here from there.

Neil deGrasse Tyson responds

In response to the facts Stephen Hawking recently put out there, Neil deGrasse Tyson has said this:

1.2 billion people in the world think there’s no Heaven. But apparently, it’s only news when Stephen Hawking says so.

It’s funny. Shortly before reading this, I was having a discussion with a friend over the very fact that Hawking got so much press for what he said. In truth, his statement represents an idea that is commonly held and not at all radical, and very few other people would raise eyebrows by saying the same thing.

The fact is, Hawking’s statement was considered remarkable because of who he is and the contributions he has made to science, but that is only part of the story. There are plenty of other big-name scientists who have made greater contributions than Hawking, but they wouldn’t have gotten any press with the same statements – even with name recognition. What makes this a big deal, at least in part, is that Christians have long been trying to claim Hawking for their own. His statements have been ambiguous in the past, so dishonest people have been able to exploit his beliefs quite easily. (Hell, people do still do this with Einstein.) But now everything has become clear. There can longer be any doubt that Stephen Hawking is an atheist. I think that irks the Christian liars more than the actual statements he makes.

Atheism is not normative

I don’t know how many times I need to say this: Atheism is not normative. Atheism is not normative. Atheism is not normative. Am I to the center of the Tootsie Pop yet?

PZ has a post about so-called dictionary atheists that is just inane. He uses an analogy with humans, pointing out that when we talk about humans we don’t define them merely biologically:

He also noticed that every single human being he ever met, without exception, was more than a perambulating set of chromosomes. Some were good at math and others liked to dance and others were kind and yet others liked to argue, and these were the virtues that made them good and interesting, and made them…human, in this best sense of the word. So when he praised being human, it wasn’t for the accident of their birth, it was for the qualities that made being human meaningful.

PZ is confused. There is a fundamental difference between the concept of “human” and the concept he is describing – personhood. We do define the former merely biologically. The latter, however, is far more complex. We need to all get on the same page if discussions of atheism and atheists are to ever bear any fruit.

But I can agree with some of the sentiment behind PZ’s post. He’s saying that atheists are more than people who simply lack belief in gods; atheists have come to their beliefs for a whole slew of reasons and they are composed of a wide set of values. Or at least PZ ought to be specifying “wide set”. What it seems like he’s actually doing is imposing his specific values onto what “atheism” means:

I think we sell ourselves short when we pretend atheism is an absence of values rather than a positive and powerful collection of strong modern beliefs, but also because there are distinct differences in the way atheists should think, relative to theists.

Wrong. Atheism is not a philosophy and thus does not lead a person into any one way or general way of thinking. That’s why Jerry Coyne has to always go on about accomodationists. It’s why no one is conflating Raelians with anyone who has been a part of any atheist movement. Atheist beliefs are defined by the individual atheist, not by atheism. One Pharyngula commenter makes this whole point succinctly:

“I’m an Atheist, therefore I believe…” Knowing nothing else about me, finish that sentence.

I bet I can finish that sentence for a humanist. Or a nihilist. Or a Raelian. And for myself. But I can’t finish it for any atheist I do not know.

I’ve taken the time to define atheist-related terms in the past. My post certainly was not exhaustive, only providing for broad categories, but it provides for a good starting point. Importantly, it distinguishes between what “atheism” simply is versus what something like “new atheism” is: The former is descriptive while the latter is normative. I can understand when theists confuse these categories, but PZ ought to know better.

Or maybe someone wants to tell me what Joe Blow the Atheist from Northeast Bumfuck believes. PZ thinks he can.