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What’s a hate group?

From Dispatches From the Culture Wars:

 The Southern Poverty Law Center has added several “mainstream” religious right groups to their list of hate groups for their zealous opposition to equal rights for gays and lesbians, including the American Family Association and the Family Research Council. And the theocons are throwing quite a fit over it.

I’ve said many times that I think the SPLC sometimes paints with too broad a brush so it’s always a good idea to examine the evidence on which they base such conclusions. You can see their report on these anti-gay groups here and judge for yourself. I think they make a stronger case against some than against others.

“No organization better defines what a hate group is all about than the Southern Poverty Law Center,” said Robert Knight, Washington correspondent for Coral Ridge Ministries. “Smearing legitimate groups merely for disagreeing about homosexuality is a very hateful act.”

But the evidence is pretty good in some cases. The American Family Association, for example, has hired Bryan Fischer as one of their chief spokesmen and he has repeatedly offered views that are bigoted and hateful beyond any legitimate doubt. For example, he has argued for forcing gays and lesbians into “reparative therapy” to “cure” them. He has called gays “domestic terrorists.”

Most bizarrely, he has claimed that Adolf Hitler and all the leading Nazis were militant homosexuals, declaring, “[h]omosexuality gave us Adolph Hitler, and homosexuals in the military gave us the Brown Shirts, the Nazi war machine and 6 million dead Jews.” He claims that only homosexuals could be as savage as the Nazis were.

Is this bigotry and hatred? Of course it is. No reasonable person could conclude otherwise.

 I sifted through the SLPC’s list, and every group on it is doing far more than “merely disagreeing about homosexuality.”  Some are advocating that homosexuality be made illegal, not just by reversing Lawrence v. Texas but by making sodomy punishable by execution.  At the very least, every group on the list is actively lying about homosexuality in order to bolster its case, which I would say qualifies for the term “hatred.”   I know what a contentious statement this is, but I think it’s possible to be bigoted without being hateful.  To be bigoted, in my understanding, is to hold prejudices, and all it takes to hold prejudices is simple ignorance and the inability or refusal to think critically about that particular subject.  By that standard, I think people who disapprove of homosexuality because they think God disapproves of it could be called bigoted but not hateful.  The hateful ones are the ones who form organizations with wholesome names like the American Family Association which are in actuality specifically devoted to making homosexuals miserable.  The ones who made ridiculous distortions of the truth like claiming that to be gay is to secretly be a pedophile, or that gays have an organized agenda to convert everyone in the country to homosexuality, or that the Nazi Party was controlled by homosexuals.  People who make such claims aren’t simply ignorant or mistaken– they have lost touch with reality, because that’s something hatred tends to make people do.  As the SLPC’s statement says:

Generally, the SPLC’s listings of these groups is based on their propagation of known falsehoods — claims about LGBT people that have been thoroughly discredited by scientific authorities — and repeated, groundless name-calling. Viewing homosexuality as unbiblical does not qualify organizations for listing as hate groups.

People who insist on repeating falsehoods in order to justify their opposition to others are hard to reason with, which is what makes them scary.  It’s what makes them important to watch, which is why this list was made.   I think it’s important to point out that while ad hominem arguments (arguments “against the man”) are still fallacious, the marketplace of ideas can’t be allowed to keep viewing groups who have a demonstrated willingness to lie their asses off as credible.  Dan Savage has some commentary on this topic specifically relating to the SPLC’s list, but I think it’s definitely worth quoting from his post entitled When Will We Reach The Tipping Point?:

I’m old enough to remember when “objectivity” required that a racist troglodyte be included in any discussion about the civil rights of African Americans. I can remember—I can remember barely (I’m not that old)—when racist bigots were regularly invited on television and asked to write op-eds. They argued in favor of segregation and against interracial marriage and were treated like reasonable people who represented one side of an important political debate. (“African Americans: Are they human?”) Amazing but true: Within my living memory, a person could go on TV and argue against the basic civil equality of African Americans, or take a stand against interracial marriage (always out of “concern” for the poor “mixed-race children” of “selfish” interracial couples), and be invited back the next week to serve up more of the same. People made careers out of trafficking in what we now recognize as baldly racist hate speech.

But then a day came when the racist troglodytes weren’t welcome on television anymore. Our culture reached a tipping point. We decided, as a society, that discrimination based on race was wrong, full stop. There were still racists out there, of course, and there still are. But they were no longer treated like respectable people with a legitimate points of view. They were bigots, they were cut off, they were cast out.

For a few days after Tyler Clementi’s suicide, it looked like we might be reaching that same tipping point on LGBT civil rights—the same tipping point we reached on race and the equality of the sexes: bigots would no longer be welcome to pollute our airwaves, our op-ed pages, our culture, and our society with their hatred. Just as we had recognized the harm that racism was doing to our society and said “enough” (which didn’t end racism), and just as we had recognized the harm that sexism was doing to our society and said “enough” (which didn’t end sexism), maybe we were finally ready to recognize the harm that homophobia is doing to our society and were prepared to say “enough” (not that it would end homophobia).

In my flu-induced delirium I thought we were there. I was wrong.


I’m glad I went, and I had a good time.  That said, I most likely won’t go back.

It’s amazing, what they’re doing.  A free conference in the Midwest for non-believers, with this kind of lineup of stellar speakers?  Anybody in the area who is remotely interested in these topics would be well-served in checking it out.  This is the third year of Skepticon in Springfield MO, and the list of speakers includes most of the same people from the previous two years but keeps getting larger.  Normally in order to attend a sizable gathering for skeptics, you’d have to be on either the west or east coast.  I would love to attend The Amazing Meeting (TAM) in Las Vegas at some point, but seem to recall the tickets as costing around $400 for the entire weekend, which is beyond the means of many people, let alone college students.

And college students from Missouri State University are the people who instigated, planned, and organized this meeting.  The primary organizer, JT Eberhard, almost never stopped moving.  He managed to sit down and listen to a few minutes of some talks, but from what I could tell he was mostly running around making sure things went smoothly.  That’s what being in charge of a conference is like– the people throwing the party are usually the last ones to have time to enjoy it.  And this conference was like a party in a lot of ways.  In a rare spare moment I met JT and we talked for a bit.  He explained that the intent was to give skeptics a chance to get together, see that there are lots of others like them, curse a lot, later drink a lot, and have fun.

Now, to the controversial part.  I don’t know if Jeff Wagg’s blog post which said that Skepticon is not actually about skepticism but rather atheism is the only openly voiced complaint to that effect, but it seems to be the one getting the most attention.  Wagg’s post is, on the balance, not at all offensive.  In fact, he goes out of his way to note his respect for the conference and its organizers, refers to his ruminating on this subject as “navel gazing,” and in general is about as self-effacing as could be.  The title of his post, “Are Atheists Delusional?” is deliberately provocative and Wagg immediately notes that he believes nothing of the sort, but is simply trying to echo a talk given by Richard Carrier at Skepticon entitled “Are Christians Delusional?”  I still think he could’ve used a better title, but so be it. Wagg’s argument:

I don’t believe the schedule shows “a myriad of skeptical issues.” The e-mail is an admission that the organizers of Skepticon believe that Skepticism = Atheism and that the event is designed to combat religion, specifically Christianity. I believe that if you equate skepticism with anything other than science, you’ve missed the point. As for Christianity, skepticism has nothing to say except about testable claims associated therein. Bleeding statues? Yes, skepticism comes into play. Jesus rose and is in heaven? Seems unlikely, but there’s not a lot more to say. . . The pro-atheist cause is an entirely different endeavor with a community that overlaps strongly with the skeptical community. Skepticism is about drawing conclusions that are proportioned to the available evidence. That’s it. And I think keeping the two things separate if [sic] vitally important.

This message was not taken at all well by Eberhard, who responded at, or PZ Myers, who has been a speaker at Skepticon since its inception.  Eberhard notes that several of the speakers scheduled were expected to talk about skepticism generally, and even if it were a conference all about atheism he wouldn’t care:

My first response is that even if we were a purely atheist convention, so what?  Skepticism leads to certain conclusions like homeopathy doesn’t work or that psychics are frauds.  Just as certain as it leads to those conclusions, it also leads to the conclusion that god doesn’t exist (or that anybody claiming to have good reason to believe that god exists has done so in error).  And just like the previous conclusions, people who fail to grasp the godlessness of the universe often hamstring society. 

PZ, predictably, denounced Wagg’s comments as “stupid” concerns about “harming the cause.”  He then linked back to JT’s commentary saying “I think we can tell where the future of skepticism lies,” which caused JT to tweet:

@pzmyers calls me as the future of skepticism, links to me bitch-slapping JWagg. So flattered I shit my pants. 

Let’s back up a bit.

I’ve been following the Skepticon Twitter feed throughout (#sk3), and now that it’s over I noticed there are a lot of warm and fuzzy feelings being voiced, sometimes with people going so far as to say that they’re not looking forward to going back to the “real world” after Skepticon. That’s something people might say about any vacation or trip, and is in fact a regular post-con feeling for people who attend big events like DragonCon or ComicCon. But specifically what people are referring to is the time they spent amongst fellow unbelievers.   The blog for Skepticon 2 summarizes the event somewhat tongue-in-cheek but not untruthfully as “We’re inviting a bunch of famous atheists to Springfield to criticize religion and explain how it’s very dangerous.”  The program for Skepticon 3, on its front page under the title, says “Unbuckling the Bible Belt” and the History section on the back reads:

The Skepticon series began in October of 2008 when a small group of pirates decided that they wanted to make a difference in the town of Springfield, MO.  They then somehow convinced PZ Myers and Richard Carrier to come to the Missouri State Campus to spread skepticism and criticize religion.

It’s admirable that this summary’s author acknowledges that spreading skepticism and criticizing religion are not identical ventures, and I hope he/she would also agree that criticizing religion is not necessarily even a subset of skepticism.  If skepticism means thinking critically and demanding evidence for the truth of an assertion before accepting it as true, which is how I define it, then one can quite easily criticize religion without being skeptical at all.  And, let’s be honest, doing it that way is both easier and more fun for a lot of people, just as criticizing anything you want to be critical about can be easier and more fun if you’re not actually concerned with evaluating the facts.  During his talk on Saturday morning, DJ Grothe described atheism as a kind of skepticism toward a particular topic– belief in God.  He compared it to “a-UFO-ism,” in that an atheist is a person who doesn’t believe in God just as an a-UFO-ist would be a person who disbelieves in flying saucers.  But disbelief in a thing and skepticism regarding that thing are not identical.  People do not necessarily disbelieve in things because they are critical thinkers any more than they believe in things for that reason.  The irony in maintaining that people believe in God because they are stupid is that this conclusion is not at all bright itself, and atheists who maintain such while smugly congratulating each other on their critical thinking skills are not much fun to spend time with.

No, I’m not going to claim that this description fits the majority of people who attend Skepticon.  I will say, however, that creating an opportunity to criticize religion as an end unto itself is an invitation for people to engage in that sort of behavior.  It creates an atheist echo chamber– as DJ put it, people saying “I’m really smart and so are you, so you should agree with me.”  That’s not a bad thing because it “hurts the movement,” though it almost certainly does.  It’s a bad thing because at that point it’s no longer about skepticism, but cronyism.

The two areas of concern to be discussed during a conference on skepticism could be labeled Topic-Driven, or “things to be skeptical about,” and Theory-Driven, or “how/why to be skeptical.”  Most of the talks and both panels in this case were theory-driven, and that’s okay.  But the topic-driven talks actually served to highlight things that should be discussed during the theory-driven ones.  Amanda Marcotte, for example, commented during her interesting talk on how irrationality nurtures sexism that religion acts as a “blank slate” when it comes to encouraging prejudice– because it’s a matter of faith and therefore doesn’t demand the same burden of proof that other areas of belief do, it can be used to reinforce any pre-existing biases people have.  That’s an interesting hypothesis, but she didn’t supply evidence for it.  It could be that religion can only reinforce certain types of bias, or that only certain types of religion can.  Or it could be that religion is actually more likely to produce bias where it previously didn’t exist.  I think that’s unlikely, actually, but it’s possible.  And it’s a discussion worth having, considering the breadth of disagreement about how much blame religion should receive when people invoke it to justify their bigoted thoughts and acts.   These topics don’t have to be avoided because they’re weighty or boring, either– David Fitzgerald, who went next, managed to make an interesting and funny talk out of the ostensibly very dry subject of differing representations of Jesus in historical literature. You don’t have to swap skepticism for ideology to have a good time.  Man, I hope that you don’t. 

Wagg’s principle complaint is that he doesn’t think religion is an appropriate topic for skepticism past a certain point, and that point is “testable claims.”  In his view, bleeding statues qualify, but resurrection does not.  Bleeding statues and such are the domain of investigator Joe Nickell, who also spoke at Skepticon and explicitly rejects the label of “debunker” because he wants it noted that the falsity of supernatural claims is not a foregone conclusion for him.  But could Nickell investigate the topic of resurrection?  Sure he could– by applying what we know about biology to specific claims that someone came back to life.  And aside from cases of someone flat-lining and being revived via defibrillation and the sort, what we know is that people don’t come back to life.  Therefore, the skeptical stance to such a proposition is not to deny it outright, but it’s also certainly not to believe it, or even to adopt the kind of agnostic position we might have when being asked what color socks the president is wearing today.  The skeptical stance regarding the claim of resurrection is: Everything we know says that it’s incredibly unlikely that that thing happened, so I do not believe it.  Not only is there incredibly sketchy evidence for the resurrection of a man, but there is evidence against it.  Skepticism can be applied to any and all empirical claims, and the resurrection of a person, like so many other religious claims, is empirical.  Hence, fair game.  Richard Dawkins goes so far as to say that a universe which was deliberately created would look different from one which wasn’t, so our understanding of the universe can be counted as evidence against the existence of the creator god in whom so many believe.  Essentially, he claims that the hypothesis offered by Intelligent Design, effectively the teleological argument, is actually refuted by the available evidence its proponents intend to confirm it.*

So religion is not at all a subject which should be counted as out of bounds for skeptics– so long as they are being skeptical about it, and not simply mocking and condemning it.  If someone is the type of person who cares enough about religion to have become an atheist as a conclusion to a lot of thought and research, it baffles me why they wouldn’t be interested in what research has to say about why people are religious in the first place, and what evidence science might have to offer about religious claims.  Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell has its critics among believers and scholars (and many who fit only one of those categories), but in addition to saying 1) Hey, we shouldn’t consider religion a sui generis topic that isn’t susceptible to the same scrutiny we give every other claim about reality, and 2) Here are the most common arguments for theism and why they fail philosophically, which are both important messages, he also delves into the considerable body of research on why and how people actually believe.  Which, I think, is the next logical step for a true skeptic so that he/she doesn’t fall into the “they’re just stupid/evil” trap.  And the explanations are there, if you just look for them– trust me.  If you’d prefer to believe that the majority of world’s population are actually just stupid and/or evil, I can’t help you.  But I can say that that’s not a skeptical position to take. 

So, I guess that means I don’t agree with Jeff Wagg.  But neither do I necessarily agree with DJ, whose perspective is right-on but he doesn’t seem to be skeptical enough about skeptics.  I don’t think he acknowledges that they’re vulnerable to the same tendencies as everybody else in terms of wanting to belong, and forming an “us vs. them” mentality.  That’s how you get people who think that being skeptical is about your position on topics– a conclusion rather than an approach, which is not how science works.  It’s not about making sure everyone agrees and celebrating that….quite to the contrary, it’s about pulling out the disagreements and examining them, finding out which arguments are legitimate and why. That’s fun. That’s skepticism. 

*Is Dawkins right about that?  Maybe, but that discussion could go on forever, and I don’t honestly think that most atheists became atheists by applying the teleological argument in reverse.  Even if they agree that evolution demonstrates that a creator god who directly intervened in existence to create each species is unnecessary, that belief is not what made them atheists.  People were skeptical about the existence of gods long before evolutionary theory was even a glimmer of an idea, as even William Dembski will admit when pressed (perhaps by Christopher Hitchens), and it’s possible to find atheists today who either deny evolution (rare) or don’t actually understand evolution that well though they know they’re “supposed” to believe it (much more common).  The Hitchens/Dembski debate from the 18th has been posted on Youtube, by the way. Worth a watch I think.

Odds and ends

I’m getting ready to go to Skepticon 3 tomorrow.  It doesn’t actually start until Friday, but it’s a good seven hours to Springfield, Missouri so I figured I’d allow a day for the drive and then hopefully wake up fresh and open-minded Friday morning.  I love a conference you can attend in a t-shirt and jeans– well, probably with a cardigan as it’s a little cooler up there. Living in Texas can spoil a person.  

Rather than addressing the TSA outcry going on right now about people having to choose between either a startlingly detailed full-body scan or a startlingly invasive full-body  rubdown if they want to fly, I’m going to link to two people who have provided full-throated, comprehensive rants on the subject:
Jennifer from Ravings From a Feral Genius with Sex Abuse Via The TSA: It’s Actually Come To This
and Ken from Popehat with Gropers to Gropees: Shut Up And Take It Or Hit The Road

Suffice to say that I’m very happy not to have to fly anymore, at least for the foreseeable future.  I will indeed hit the road. 

“Psychic” Kids

Well, this sounds like about the worst idea for a TV show ever.

Jen from Skepchick writes:

In summer of 2008, the American television channel A&E premiered a series called Psychic Kids: Children of the Paranormal and has just begun airing the second season this November. Presided over by professional psychic Chip Coffey, and a few other mediums and paranormal experts, the show finds kids, who tend to range in age from 12 to 18 and who have experiences with visions, demonic possessions and other assorted unexplained and disturbing phenomena. The gathered experts then teach these “children of the paranormal” how to use their psychic powers to resolve their problems while filming it for a weekly, hour-long television episode.I’ll start my serious commentary with an admission – I have not watched this show. I intended to, when I first saw the commercials for the second season and thought it would be a good topic to write about. But at my very first research stop – the official Psychic Kids website – I realized their own description gave me more than enough to work with:

PSYCHIC KIDS: CHILDREN OF THE PARANORMAL™, profiles children who live with an incredible secret: they have psychic abilities. Feeling scared and isolated, these kids have nowhere to turn…until now. Help is on the way in the form of psychic/mediums Chip Coffey, Chris Fleming and Kim Russo, who themselves grew up with these senses, and licensed psychotherapist Edy Nathan, who has more than 20 years experience.
In this intense journey, the experts draw on their own personal experiences, training and unique outlook on life to bring troubled kids together to show them how to harness their abilities and, ultimately, show them that they’re not alone in this world.

Okay. In case you don’t see what’s wrong with the above paragraphs, let me unpack it a bit. Basically, a group of grown adults are singling out children who are troubled, who feel scared and isolated, and who claim to be haunted by evil spirits and possessed by demons, and telling them their problems can only be fixed by learning how to use their psychic powers in front of television cameras for the financial benefit of said adults. Clearer now?
If there ever were a case that screams exactly what the harm is in letting psychics go unchallenged, this is it. Not only are kids and their parents getting sucked into believing things with no solid evidence, but targeting children with documented psychological problems and giving them bogus solutions precludes them getting professional medical therapy and assistance they obviously could use. Even worse, televising the entire process normalizes the idea for the audience, which might include other troubled kids and parents who decide to try the same “solutions” with even less-scrupulous paranormal experts who aren’t being held to even the low standard of honesty television documentation imposes.
Not only is there nothing redeeming about Psychic Kids, it’s not even harmless entertainment. It’s actively harmful, and the victims are not adults who made their own mistakes, but kids in need who are being deceived and exploited. In short, it’s repulsive. The only real solution to this show is to out it for what it is and level the critical thinking influence to starve it out of of existence.

Now, as already noted I’m not a parent.  But…..if I had a child who was feeling alone, scared, and troubled, I’m pretty sure that my first impulse wouldn’t be to hand him/her over to this guy to be on his television show.  Being on any show at that point sounds like a pretty bad idea, honestly.  And if the kids on this show are simply playing a role and don’t believe themselves to have psychic powers at all, that’s not a great deal better– they’re still conveying the idea to viewers that this is what you should do when you have kids or are a kid like the ones these people are presenting themselves to be.

The readers on Skepchick have started a letter-writing campaign to tell A&E what a spectacularly bad idea this show is.

ETA:  Also covered on She Thought and Pharyngula.  

12-year-old girl beaten after Christian youth meeting for “having a boy’s name.”


What’s in a name? A 12-year-old girl at Hernando Middle School in Mississippi was beaten by five fellow students — reportedly because they said her name, Randi, was “a boy name.”
“They started talking about me like I was a man,” she told local news station WREG. “That I shouldn’t be in this world. And my name was a boy name.” The four girls and a boy surrounded her after a Fellowship of Christian Students meeting, and, she said, kicked her in the rib and leg, hit her in the face, sat on her, pushed her face into the floor, and threw her onto a cafeteria table.
Apparently, the incident was caught on surveillance camera, but in order to maintain student privacy, the film has not been released. A school administrator issued a statement, said WREG, that “fighting is not tolerated and that disciplinary action will be taken to the fullest extent of the law.” No charges were filed, however, because the police were not called. Whether the attack was an isolated incident or part of ongoing bullying remains unknown.
The student in question was not said to be LGBT — but whether she is or not doesn’t matter. She was beaten because she was perceived to be in some way not conforming to her gender. That is yet another reason schools need to include discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression in diversity and anti-bullying programs. It is not just LGBT students at risk, but potentially others as well. Students, teachers, and staff must learn that even characteristics some people might view as “deviant” or “sinful” are still no excuse for violence and bullying.

The part in bold is what is most important to me.  I’m not going to blame the kids’ Christian youth group for this, much less Christianity as a whole, much less religion as a whole.  For all we know, the timing of this attack is irrelevant to the motivation.  The only reason I think it’s worth mentioning at all is that perhaps in the future, the Fellowship of Christian Students could emphasize that beating the crap out of a girl because you think her name is boyish is not exactly loving behavior

My continuing suspicion is that at the root of homophobia, misogyny, transphobia, and any other gender-role-based hatred you will find a rigid belief in the necessity of conforming to gender roles– a belief that there are ways that men and women should behave, look, and apparently even be named, and there is something wrong with people who do not conform to these standards.  This suspicion first occurred to me while being assaulted and called a dyke for having short hair in middle school, and has pretty much developed and strengthened from that point on.

The more complex problem is where this fervent desire to maintain gender conformity comes from, and everybody seems to have a different answer to that.  Some people are willing to chalk it up entirely to religion, and indeed it certainly seems like most religious systems on the planet have some kind of prescriptions about how men should be and how women should be, but I think it’s more likely that those prescriptions became codified in religion because they existed prior to it.  That because people already thought that such conformity was necessary, they decided that that’s what God/the gods/the universe want as well.  There are even (even?  I guess this is not surprising at all) people who use evolutionary psychology to make the argument that men and women have evolved to be certain things and therefore that’s how they should be.  I have no issue with arguments that there are male and female behavioral tendencies that have evolved, but once you start getting normative with that stuff, I will whack you soundly over the head with the Mallet of Naturalistic Fallacy. 

I’m guessing the parents of the kids who beat this girl up didn’t specifically tell them that people who diverge from tightly prescribed gender roles have something wrong with them and should be punished.  But there are a lot of ways to convey that message less explicitly and most people don’t seem to see anything wrong with doing so.  No, you’re not going to catch me saying that kids should only be given gender-neutral toys or toys intended for the opposite sex, boys should be enrolled in ballet and girls signed up for the baseball team whether they like it or not, etc.  But while I know full well that kids like to have things simple and categorized while they’re young, I can’t help but think that accommodating that urge when it comes to gender is going to serve them poorly later on, and certainly that actively providing and enforcing views about gender conformity when they’re at any age is encouraging them to become like the students in this story.

Of course, maybe these kids just hate Randi and were using any excuse to go after her.  “You have a boy’s name” is such a stupid reason to go after anyone that it’s entirely possible.  But the gender role conformity thing shouldn’t be dignified by calling it anything other than stupid.

Another snippet on dickishness

Comment from m5 in reply to this blog entry on Dispatches from the Culture Wars:

I’m pretty sure THIS guy and his ilk are the ones Phil Plait was talking about in his Don’t Be a Dick speech, and I wish certain people would stop insisting criticism of THIS sort of shit is the same as accommodationalism (sic).

Yes, I think so.  Aside from the arrogance and rudeness “THIS guy” displayed toward Ed Brayton, a good friend of mine who is the blogger behind Dispatches, intentionally using a quote out of context because it appears to support your position is a good example of intellectual dishonesty, and being intellectually honest is the best way possible to avoid being a dick.  Check out this post and thread for a discussion on what exactly intellectual honesty is, and how it differs from regular honesty.  To put it briefly, honesty is about telling the truth.  Intellectual honesty is about how you prioritize which truths to seek, know, and share with others.

Atheism and (not) being a dick: a belated rant with copious footnotes

The “What would convince you that there is a god/supernatural/really weird thing out there?” argument continues. I didn’t read the whole thread.  I’m feeling fatigued on the subject, honestly.  It’s easy to demonstrate the existence of weird things (even really weird ones), rather more difficult to prove the supernatural (depending on how you define it), and impossible, so far as I’m concerned, to prove the existence of a god.  There.

A few months ago the discussion was raging over what it means for a skeptic to be a dick, after “Bad Astronomer” Phil Plait gave a talk entitled “Don’t Be a Dick” at The Amazing Meeting (TAM) in Las Vegas.  You can read Daniel Loxton’s* summary of the situation on Skeptiblog here.  He and P.Z. Myers had quite a lot of back-and-forth during that time, both on Skepticblog and on Twitter,** which was definitely interesting to read.  But it was disenchanting as well, because it’s always disenchanting to see (or be one of) people who are part of a group defined as much by the perception of outsiders as by those of insiders disagree dramatically about what that group represents, and how much they should care.  I’m trying to describe this without portraying it as if there are only two sides, because there never are.  There are not simply a) those people who tell it like it is, vs. b) those people who accommodate.  There are also people who think they are “just telling it like it is” but are actually dicks, and people who are perceived as accommodating but are actually just telling it like it is according to them rather than those accusing them of accommodation.  And, of course, other people in between those groups.  If you’ve taken part in any ideological group’s discussion concerning “strategy,” “message,” or “framing,” you probably know what I’m talking about…especially if there were scientists involved in the discussion, as scientists are notorious for not giving a damn about how their revelations are perceived.  That’s not their job– they do the work and report the results.  How you think about the results is your problem.

I’m sympathetic to that position, but it’s also terribly naive when it comes to communicating to the public.  People, including scientists, are susceptible to scores of biases and information filters they’ve never even heard of.  Studying these biases and filters is fascinating and I’ll never tire of it, but thinking that it will somehow cure you of having them yourself is a little like thinking that if Data from Star Trek: TNG learned enough about emotions, he could somehow acquire them.***  Your nature won’t allow that to happen– the best that will happen is that occasionally you will be able to catch yourself exercising a bias and make some effort to correct it, or feel the discomfort of cognitive dissonance at times when it would otherwise have passed you by and allowed you to comfortably maintain mutually exclusive views in peace.  People react differently to the same information depending on the source, language, time of day or year, and so on.  Context matters.  If you have a specific message you want to get across, paying attention to the context in which you express it is essential, and it doesn’t require dishonesty either to yourself or to your audience despite what is claimed by those who refuse to pay such attention. 

Sometimes, by contrast, being a dick involves dishonesty.  Or at least, it involves misrepresenting the truth when you really should know better, such as saying that people are religious or have different political beliefs than you because they are idiots.  Gah.  People who actually do think that don’t need a lesson on framing or strategy; they just need to look around once in a while.  Francis Collins is religious, Ken Miller is religious, Justin Barrett is religious….these people are not morons.  Every member of my immediate family, which includes four people with the title “Dr.”, are religious.  They are not morons.  Nor are they insane, or evil, or any of those facile explanations so often used by a different kind of “new atheist.”****  Such is the language of people who are eager to embrace an “us vs. them” mentality and have no interest in promoting understanding– having an opponent, and feeling like you’ve trounced them, is so much more satisfying.

And it’s so much more understandable in a country like America, which cherishes freedom of speech and has the luxury of mass communication but also includes a number of people convinced that they live in a Christian nation whose laws should reflect those in the Bible (the one in their heads at least).  Copenhagen was an interesting location at which to hold an international atheist conference this year, given that Denmark is generally acknowledged to be one of the most secular countries on the planet.  This country, in which I spent three years working on my PhD, has an official state religion– the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark.  By law, its monarch (currently Margrethe II) is required to be a member of that church.  But like the U.K. which has its own established church, there is little inclination in the country’s government to pay lip service to religious beliefs themselves or to compel the people via legislation to do so by word or deed.  Hence there is a large population of nonbelievers who nevertheless should probably not be considered atheists at all,***** let alone angry ones.  When the conference was announced, a Danish friend of mine commented on Facebook that (I paraphrase) while he doesn’t believe in a god, he finds the idea of gathering specifically for atheists mystifying and unnecessary at best and downright obnoxious at worst.  I can entirely understand that sentiment from his perspective, but from mine it’s very different.  People who perceive themselves as oppressed, rightly or wrongly, will attack the ideology of the perceived oppressors vociferously and actively.  An atheist group in Denmark, in spite of (or perhaps because of?  I pondered this in England too) its state religion, is about as subversive as opting to have chicken rather than beef at a barbeque.  It’s not that European countries don’t have their own very heated conflicts about religion– they obviously do, as the Muhammad cartoon controversy reveals to this day– it’s just that the right to be a secular person is not nearly as much in question as it is in the U.S., and that can throw anyone who has such desires into defensive mode.  I just wish that didn’t translate into the kind of culture war we’re seeing now.

All of this is at the top of my mind at the moment because next week I’m off to Missouri to attend Skepticon 3, which might as well be called Atheistcon judging by its schedule.  That in itself does not bother me– I’m really looking forward to it, actually– but I’ve never been to a skeptical or atheist conference in the U.S. and am not quite sure what I signed up for at this point.

* Daniel’s the guy who produces the Junior Skeptic feature in Skeptic magazine and recently published his first book, Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be, an evolution primer for kids.  It’s a beautiful book and well-written, worth checking out even if you’re well past your years of being “junior” anything.  

** If you’re one of those who– like I used to– think that Twitter is just a place for people to compare what they had for breakfast and write in abysmal grammar about who they hooked up with last night and what they watched on TV…’re wrong.  Or at least you’re following the wrong people. 

 *** Yes, Trekkers, I know…..Data did exercise emotion on several occasions on the show.  I also know the problems inherent in postulating a consciousness, even an artificial one, that tries to function without emotion.  Do not try to think this example through past the intended meaning. 

****People apply the term “New Atheists” to those like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.  They should be applying it to people who have recently concluded that they are atheists, especially in America, because it would be a much clearer usage.  People who think Dawkins is strident should talk to a 22-year-old in a chat room who refers to the “holey babble” and all religious people as “god-botherers.” It’s a phase….at least for most.  

***** I don’t share the definition of “atheist” Phil Zuckerman uses.  To me the label for a person who won’t necessarily say they believe in a god but nevertheless believes in “something” (as did the majority of interviewees described by Phil in a talk he gave to us in Aarhus, as I recall) is not properly “atheist.”

What would convince you that God exists?

This isn’t a new question, that’s for sure.  I’ve been asked it more times than I can recall, starting roughly ten years ago when I thought it would be fun to go online and argue at length with strangers about whether it makes sense to believe in God or not.  But apparently it has become a hot topic of conversation in the atheist blogosphere recently.  Let me explain.
No, there is too much. Let me sum up:

  1. P.Z Myers wrote a post in response to something on the Richard Dawkins web site, saying that there is no evidence that could convince him of the existence of a god, mainly on the grounds that the concept is made so nebulous (by design, in his view) as to be indemonstrable.  And the only proper response to indemonstrable claims is unbelief. 
  2. Jerry Coyne replied by suggesting a hypothetical scenario in which P.Z. encountered someone who could do really cool and mysterious things and goes by the name of Jesus. Would that convince him?
  3. P.Z. responded to that by elaborating on his argument from incoherence.
  4. Coyne then detailed the difference between intrinsic methodological naturalism (IMN) and provisional/pragmatic methodological naturalism (PMN).  Methodological naturalism is the term for what science does in refusing to invoke supernatural explanations for the phenomena it studies.  IMN, as he explains, is the “a priori philosophical commitment to not even consider supernatural explanations.” PMN, on the other hand, is an approach which does not automatically discount supernatural explanations, but basically says “I’ll believe it when I see it.”  A practitioner of PMN would not simply assert that ghosts, for example, can’t be studied scientifically, but would also not be willing to shut the door on inquiry and just accept truth claims about ghosts without investigation. Coyne said that IMN “appears to be the official position of the National Center for Science Education and the semi-official position of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Sciences” and also P.Z. Myers, whereas Coyne himself agrees with PMN.  
  5. Then yesterday Greta Christina weighed in on Coyne’s side of things, though she sees P.Z. as making some good points.  She asks: 1) if there is, or should be, anything which convinces atheists that they are mistaken about the non-existence of gods, and 2) if not, does that mean they are closed-minded and dogmatic?  She agrees with P.Z.’s argument from incoherence that religious believers do not have a clear and sturdy hypothesis, let alone evidence to support it, and do not generally make falsifiable claims.  She declares that “in order to persuade me that it was probably true, a religion would have to do more than just provide some decent evidence for its hypothesis. It would have to provide a decent hypothesis in the first place. It would have to provide a hypothesis that explains existing evidence, makes accurate predictions about future events, can be tested, can have those tests replicated, is consistent with what we already know (or provides a better explanation for it than existing theories), and is internally consistent. What’s more: This hypothesis would have to do more than just explain whatever new evidence might appear to support it. It would have to explain the utter lack of good supporting evidence in the past. It would have to explain why, in thousands and thousands and thousands of years of human history, supernatural explanations of unexplained phenomena have never once panned out…and a natural explanation has always, always, always turned out to be right.”  If a religion could do that, Greta Christina says, she would cease to be an atheist.   

Okay, there’s a lot going on there. There are multiple questions flying around in this conversation, and they deserve to be teased apart and addressed separately.  So:

Q: Is atheism falsifiable?
A:  Not unless by that question you mean “Is the existence of atheists falsifiable”?  Yes it is, and yes atheists exist.  But atheism itself is not a truth claim– it’s an epistemological position people take in relation to the proposition of at least one god existing.  All a person need do to be an atheist is be unconvinced of the existence of any gods.

Q: What is the appropriate view for naturalists to take of claims for the supernatural?
A:  I’m with Jerry Coyne on this one.  The statement that “science has nothing to say about the supernatural” is, so far as I can tell, either so obvious as to be tautological or so flimsy as to be like a Jenga tower contructed by toddlers.  Science studies the natural, and insofar as claims about “supernatural” entities are natural claims (praying cures cancer, for example), they are within the bounds of scientific inquiry.  As Greta Christina points out, every time science has investigated something claimed to be supernatural, it has revealed it to in fact be natural or non-existant.  The existence of ESP is something science can study, because it posits a falsifiable event– people reading the minds of others.  Even if the mechanism could not be verified just yet, a scientist can test whether it is actually possible to know exactly what someone is thinking without using cues from their behavior, your familiarity with their character, being told by someone else, and so on.  And if such a capacity were confirmed to exist, I can guarantee that scientists would not rest until they discover the mechanism, and furthermore that they would eventually find it.  And if scientists can find it, it is natural.

Q:  What would convince you that the supernatural exists?
A:  The answer to what would make me say “Wow, that’s really strange and amazing and I have no idea how it happened” is trivially easy.  Any number of magic tricks would accomplish the job.  But that hardly means those amazing events have no explanation, does it?   The only difference between a magic trick and “real” magic is the matter of how many people know what’s actually going on.  In the former case the at least the magician him/herself knows, and in the latter case he/she doesn’t.  Meditation wasn’t magic when even its practitioners didn’t know how it worked, and it isn’t now that we do know (at least somewhat).  Claiming that magic and/or the supernatural are things we cannot explain is simply begging the question– why can’t we explain them?  By what justification would you say “can’t” to mean “can’t ever” instead of “can’t just now”?  If we’re talking about an observable event, an event detectable in any way by humans, then the former position is thoroughly unscientific.  A scientist who looks at something strange and mind-boggling and says “We can’t ever explain that” has abdicated thinking like a scientist with regard to that thing.  Wearing the scientist hat means refusing to ever close the door on inquiry and hang a sign on it that says “Keep Out: Mystery Inside.”

Q: What would convince you that a god exists?
A: Nothing, and there is no conflict between that answer and what I’ve already said, nor does taking that position make me closed-minded.   “It could be aliens” is not at all a cop-out when it comes to that question, because it points to the ever-present problem that we have no way of distinguishing between that which is infinite and that which is really, really, really impressive.  Arthur C. Clarke’s law declaring that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic could without any loss of significance be modified to say that any sufficiently advanced agency is indistinguishable from deity.  Finite beings cannot comprehend, much less confirm, the nature and existence of infinite beings.  I could be wrong about that, and if so by all means feel free to point out how.  But I’ve thought on this quite a lot and can find no way around it.  Could you convince me of the existence of aliens?  Yes, pretty easily.  But the gap between aliens and infinite beings is…..well, infinite.  “Almost infinite” is a nonsensical concept, and the frequency with which humans seem to forget this is a testament to our lack of imagination.  As is, for that matter, the tendency of humans to describe supernatural entities as thinking, behaving, and often looking uncannily similarly to humans.  The anthropologist Stewart Guthrie proposed decades ago that religion is essentially systematic, codified anthropomorphism.  I’m highly skeptical that it could be anything else.

The trickiness of characterizing empathy in politics, part 1

So as mentioned, I’m working my way through Frans de Waal’s book The Age of Empathy.  On my drive I also listened to the audiobook of Michael Shermer’s The Mind of the Market, and it was almost comical to expose myself to both at the same time and read/listen to how both drew on the same research to reach radically different conclusions about how empathy works in American economics.  de Waal maintains that Americans practice little empathy toward their fellow man (which, in his eyes, would entail mandating the government to take better care of people) and believe that the free market will take care of everyone.  Shermer, by contrast, maintains that Americans trust the market barely at all and expect the government to make things fair for everyone.  Shermer is an American with a doctorate in the history of science, whereas de Waal is a primatologist and Dutch by birth though he has lived in the United States for almost thirty years. 

I couldn’t tell you whether or how much life in America has affected de Waal’s politics, but his book does contain the following passage:

Europeans are far more divided by rank and class and tend to prefer security over opportunity.  Success is viewed with suspicion.  It’s not for nothing that the French language offers only negative labels for people who have made it for themselves, such as nouveau riche and parvenu.  The result, in some nations, has been economic gridlock.  When I see twenty-year-olds march in the streets of Paris to claim job protection or older people to preserve retirement at fifty-five, I feel myself all of a sudden siding with American conservatives, who detest entitlement.  The state is not a teat from which one can squeeze milk any time of the day, yet that’s how many Europeans seem to look at it.  And so my political philosophy sits somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic– not too comfortable a place.  I appreciate the economic and creative vitality on this side but remain perplexed by the widespread hatred of taxes and government.  

 So to be fair to de Waal– he clearly has a mental boundary at which government taking care of people ceases to count as compassion and becomes pampering, and draws that line far in advance of where he sees other Europeans– mainly the French– drawing it.  But I would pay good money to put him and Shermer in a room together and see how they manage to resolve what constitutes “hatred of taxes and government.” I’m guessing Shermer would be incredulous at that characterization of Americans, as am I.  I don’t think that description even fits Tea Partiers (although putting one of them in a room with a French student might cause the heads of both to explode).  de Waal describes Americans after Katrina as expecting the market to take care of disaster relief, but also becoming angry about FEMA’s ineptness at tackling the problem quickly and efficiently.  Which is a head-scratcher for me– if they trusted the market to take care of it, why was their anger directed toward FEMA?  Wouldn’t that rather be a sign that they thought the government should handle the issue and felt cheated when it didn’t? 

Shermer, for his part, characterizes the American view of economics as analogous to how many of its population view evolution– with a conviction that there must be a top-down designer. Opponents of evolutionary theory claim that the environment could not exist with the species in it today without a designer, whereas Americans in Shermer’s view believe that the market could not function without economic disaster without its own designer: the government.  Shermer says this is false, but at the same time is not willing to advocate for no regulation, just much less.  He compares the free market to natural selection– not a process, but an emergent property.  A term for what happens when some species and products or serves are selected for or against in their given environment.  With evolution the environment is primarily physical, consisting of weather, geographic location, predator and prey relationships, and so on.  In economics, the environment is the market, consisting of incentives and psychology.  Shermer doesn’t just use evolution as an analogy, but actually discusses dispositions people have about economics as having been adaptive in our evolutionary past.  He and de Waal would have much to discuss in this regard as well. 

What does this have to do with empathy, now?  The answer is that as scholars who are fully aware that Adam Smith wrote his Theory of Moral Sentiments before his more popular book The Wealth of Nations, both Shermer and de Waal are convinced that empathy, or lack thereof, is at the root of economic beliefs and practices.  What’s revealing is that even with this as a given, they still reach near-opposite conclusions about how empathetic Americans would behave in an economic context.

Let’s check quickly on what the term “empathy” is supposed to mean.  In the common understanding of scientists who study it, there are two primary forms.  The first is affective, or emotional.  This can also be called “sympathy,” because it involves physically imitating the object of your empathic response, and often isn’t voluntary.  Emotional contagion, the act of yawning when someone else is yawning, or imitating the body posture of someone you’re talking to, are forms of affective empathy.  The second form is theoretical, reflective, usually deliberate.  It’s also called “perspective-taking,” because it involves consciously stepping into someone else’s shoes and trying to see the world through their eyes, to mix the most common metaphors.  These two don’t always go together, as exemplified by a sadist who can understand someone’s state of mind and uses that information to figure out how best to torture them.  Using one’s understanding of someone against them has been called the “dark side of empathy.” 

Now from what I can tell, trying to apply understanding of how empathetic someone is to what their political/economic philosophy will be is rather like trying to envision what Jesus’s political/economic philosophy would be today– everybody seems to have an opinion which is easy to reach, but is also inevitably diametrically opposed to someone else’s.  That’s because compassionate people, people who are not only strongly prone to affective empathy but are also compelled by it to help others, can have markedly different views on economics and politics.  How can this be?  Well, because there’s a difference between being nice to others and having the government do it for you.  I highly doubt that de Waal, for example, would want to claim that the French are kinder than he is.  Shermer’s primary argument for free market economics rests on the data he compiles to show that empathy and altruism are evolutionarily adaptive and that people feel and practice them without requiring any outside compulsion– that is, that America doesn’t need a big government because humans are empathetic.  I’m not entirely sure yet where de Waal is going to end up with his use of research on altruistic tendencies in non-human primates, but would make a good bet that it won’t be in Shermer’s land of the free market since that certainly isn’t where he started.   The main thing I am wondering at this point, actually, is whether it’s even possible for people who study human nature to divorce their own political views from it when it comes to discussing empathy in that context. 

This post is “part 1” because I discovered that one of my favorite psychologists Jonathan Haidt has been doing work on Libertarian morality using empathy as a primary factor, and libertarian magazine Reason has its own interpretation of it.  I want to discuss both of those, but need to do some more reading and thinking about it first.

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