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In which I interview myself about American Atheists Con 2018

Who are you, and what’s your history re: religion and stuff?

  • Raised Lutheran (ELCA) in Wichita, Kansas.
  • Became an atheist in 1997/1998 (holy crap, 20+ years ago)
  • Got my BA in religious studies in 2000 (Texas Christian University). MA in religion and culture (University of Manchester, UK) in 2002, and PhD in cognitive science of religion (Aarhus University, Denmark) in 2009.
  • First skepticism/atheism conference: Skepticon 3, 2010 (I had mixed feelings, but as it turned out, I would go on to attend Skepticons 5, 9, and 10).  I’ve also attended Skeptics of Oz conferences in Wichita. I will be attending the Secular Women Work conference in Minneapolis this August.

Why did you go to American Atheists Con this year?

  • It was in Oklahoma City, which is only about two and a half hours’ drive away.
  • Curiosity. Never been.
  • Some interesting talks to listen to, new perspectives to hear, new ideas to ponder.
  • A chance to meet some people with whom I’ve only corresponded online thus far, see some old friends again, and make new friends.
  • The president of American Atheists, David Silverman, made a statement following the trainwreck of Mythcon last year that impressed me. He said, in part:

We can’t tolerate intolerance. We can’t abide elevating those who spend their time trolling, and harassing, and alienating the very people who we’re in this fight to help. We have serious work to do and we need serious conversations about how to do that. I don’t have time to waste on people whose only interest seems to be provocation for provocation’s sake and not on making the lives of our fellow atheists better.

Our convention next year is March 29 to April 1 in Oklahoma City. Like every year, we’re going to have new people you’ve never heard from. We’re going to talk about tough subjects. But we’re going to do it without making people feel unsafe at our event. We’re going to have a great time celebrating our community and the people in it. And we’re going to do it while working to help people.

Can you give me a quick overview of the issues with sexism and sexual harassment in atheism/secularism/skepticism (hereafter referred to simply as “atheism”)?

AA Con took place in the aftermath of multiple allegations of sexual harassment coming out against Lawrence Krauss, which you can read about here.  Krauss is a well-known and highly-sought-after speaker at atheist conferences and other speaking engagements, and has continued to be even though rumors of his behavior have been circling for years prior to the Buzzfeed article. The allegations against him are only the most recent in atheism’s long history of big name male figures being accused of sexual misconduct often at conferences, which includes one of them suing an entire blog network along with specific people for publishing allegations against him.

In the face of these revelations, individual atheists have had to divest themselves of hero worship and tribalism…or have not done so, and decided to instead just double-down on those things in defense of figure being accused. At the conference level, Mythcon basically picked up the pro-sexual-harasser/misogyny banner and ran with it, which is what prompted Silverman’s Facebook comment that I quoted above, and which brings us back full circle.

So atheism is a hotbed of sexual harassment, and you went to AA Con because you thought you’d get harassed at some other atheist con?

No. Atheism probably isn’t any more of a hotbed of sexual harassment than any other movement or group, actually.  If sexual harassment is a disease, then people speaking up about it and holding each other accountable is the treatment.  An organization or movement that is led largely by men (as atheism still is) that isn’t having a #metoo kind of reckoning probably isn’t that way because it has no disease, but because it hasn’t been diagnosed yet. 

Okay, then how about you get around to actually describing AA Con?

Righto. Well, the number I heard a few times was 850 attendees, which meant that they had to sell overflow tickets because that many people wouldn’t be able to fit into the Century Ballroom at the downtown Sheraton in Oklahoma City when it was time for the keynote conversation between David Silverman and Hugh Laurie.

Hugh Laurie? You mean House?

Yup. The keynote conversation turned out to be Hugh Laurie doing a bit of stand-up and then being basically interviewed by David Silverman about his atheism. It was enjoyable and actually reminded me of why it took me so long to get involved in movement atheism. Laurie’s British, as you know, and he described the culture shock in going from England to America in terms of rampant religiosity. He noted that Tony Blair is a Catholic, and described how that was actually a liability in getting elected in the UK as a “god botherer.” “God botherer” is a pretty common, benign term of ribbing in the UK for a devout Christian of any sort, perhaps a devout religious person of any sort.

It is not, I would note, Hugh Laurie’s personal insult of choice for Christians, something misunderstood by a preacher who apparently attended AA Con and wrote this charming review of the experience. Which you should read, because it’s kind of amazing. I’ll wait.

Okay, I’m back. Wow. So, how did Hugh Laurie remind you why you didn’t get involved in movement atheism forever?

He said that there’s not really anything like American Atheists in the UK– not just because it’s the UK, but because religion isn’t nearly as pervasive in politics and social life, meaning that it’s not such a big deal to not participate in it, meaning that movement atheism isn’t really a “thing.” If nobody’s trying to pass laws requiring you to follow their religious rules and generally applying social pressure to be religious, then getting all gung-ho about not being religious can seem kind of pointless.  When I was studying religion in grad school in the UK and then in Denmark, practically everyone around me was some form of non-religious, but the idea of joining an atheist movement seemed ridiculous and rather…petulant.

I absorbed this view so thoroughly that when I got back to the States, I brought it with me.  If you read the post I wrote after attending Skepticon for the first time in 2010, shortly after moving back to the US, you’ll see that my main objection was that it was just too…..atheisty.  I saw Skepticon as a big party for atheists, which it was in part, but I missed that if you live in the United States, particularly in a place like the South or the Midwest (like Missouri or Oklahoma), a big party for atheists that happens once a year might be the only time you actually feel comfortable being an atheist. That’s important.

And Skepticon isn’t, and AA Con isn’t, just a party for atheists. The focus on church and state issues, which now includes social justice issues, that comes with both conferences carries the premise that atheists should be engaged in areas where an injustice is being committed and in which religion plays a role. That encompasses myriad issues– LGBTQIA rights, Black Lives Matter and institutional racism generally, reproductive rights, sexual harassment and misogyny, immigration issues, sex workers’ rights, the drug war, and so on.

If people on the side of injustice, whatever it is, are claiming that God’s on their side, then there’s a natural place for atheists to fight for justice. In David Silverman’s talk entitled How the Mighty Get Back Up, he outlined how American Atheists would back initiatives in these areas, none of which are specifically about atheism, if the people involved in them self-identify as atheists. That’s a big deal. The community charity event that took place at the end of the conference on Sunday afternoon, packing up 30,000 meals for the hungry in Oklahoma City, is a big deal.

Says who?

Well, says Brian Fields of Pennsylvania Nonbelievers (American Atheists affiliate), with whom I spent quite a bit of time talking. Brian’s one of the people I’ve known on Facebook for quite a while, and seemed like an excellent person, and proved to be equally so in person. He was excited about the meal-packing event because it was a chance to do activism/charity work at the conference, instead of just talking about it.

Who else did you meet? 

Lots of people. Russell Glasser (The Atheist Experience), Thomas Smith (Opening Arguments, Serious Inquiries Only, Philosophers in Space….he has other podcasts, but those are the ones I listen to), Bridgett “Bria” Crutchfield, Victor Harris (emcee for the conference), Jamie (Talk Heathen, a new call-in TV show out of Austin), Aron Ra, Andrew Hall (Laughing in Disbelief blog on Patheos)…..

I got to see Mandisa Lateefah Thomas (founder/director of Black Nonbelievers) again, and she gave a killer talk on Saturday called Who Says Community is Dead? reminding everyone how incredibly important community is, and how standards for appropriate behavior within that community are not only permissible but critical to avoid pushing out good people by holding onto the trolls. I got to meet a bunch of people from Wichita Oasis for *cough* the first time, and promised to attend a meetup soon. Josiah Mannion was on duty taking photos for the conference most of the time, but it was nice to see him again. Other people too, whose names are not occurring to me right now– apologies.

(Oh, also I was giving out freeze peaches. Everybody listed above got one. If you don’t have one, you should totally buy one. No pressure or anything though.)

What was your favorite talk?

That’s difficult to answer as there were many very good ones, so I’ll name three that stood out:

  • Gavin Grimm gave an amazing talk on how his Christian upbringing impacted his process of coming out as a trans man called Losing Religion and Finding Myself.
  • Brooke Binkowski, managing editor at Snopes, talked about the need for skepticism in journalism and everyday life in a talk called, appropriately, Be Skeptical About Everything, Including Skepticism.
  • Andre Salais, a political analyst, described his work on campaigning for atheist candidates for office in Arizona in a talk called Atheist Candidates Project: Meeting America’s Demand for Non-Religious Representation.

Were there any talks that made you cringe?


I looked ahead in the program on Friday, and saw that on Saturday morning there would be a talk called Islamophobe delivered by Mohammed Alkhadra. Note: The title was what caught my attention; I’d never heard of Alkhandra before. I enjoyed myself at the comedy show the night before (Leighann Lord, Andy Wood, and Victor Harris), but made sure not to have too much fun so that I’d be equipped to listen to Alkhadra the next morning.

Alkhadra was born in the US but lived in Jordan most of his life, and founded the Jordanian Atheist Community when he deconverted. According to his profile on the American Atheists web site, “after giving a speech in the United Kingdom about Islam, Mohammed faced arrest and even death at the hands of the government and Islamic extremists, prompting him to move to the United States.”  I am guessing this is that speech:

The talk he gave at AA Con was kind of an extended version of this speech, and the audience gave him a standing ovation at the end. I didn’t blame them. He described the horrors of criminalizing apostasy and blasphemy eloquently and passionately, and left no doubt concerning the value of free exchange of information (he credits learning about evolution from Richard Dawkins via Youtube for his deconversion).

So what made me cringe about his talk? Well, his conclusion was basically that if speaking out against the barbarism of an Islamic theocratic government is Islamophobia, then dammit he’s an Islamophobe and we all should be as well.

But he said this in Oklahoma, where voters approved a ballot measure to amend the state constitution to ban Sharia law from state courts in 2010.  He said this while three white men from a Kansas militia are on trial for plotting to bomb a building housing Somali Muslim refugees and a mosque. He said this in a country whose president campaigned on, and then tried to make good on, a promise to ban Muslims from entering the country altogether.

I don’t actually care if “Islamophobia” is the term of choice for hatred of and discrimination against Muslims. But we need to have some term for it, because it isn’t collapsible into racism, although bigotry is messy (hence intersectionality) and the two frequently bleed into each other.

To be as clear as possible, I feel like I need to return to bullet points:

  • Hatred of and discrimination against Muslims needs to be distinguished from criticism– however vehement– of Islam. The former is bigotry (whatever you call it); the latter is not.
  • Discrimination against Muslims is and should be illegal, but bigotry against Muslims, while reprehensible, should not. You don’t need to concede that hatred of Muslims for being Muslims should be illegal in order to call it bigotry.
  • The necessity of keeping even bigoted speech legal, even when it’s bigoted speech against a minority in one country, is underscored by the need to speak out against abuses committed by that minority when it is a majority elsewhere. Supporting Ahed Tamimi does not make one anti-Semitic. Supporting ex-Muslim organizations, especially in Muslim-dominated countries, does not make one an Islamophobe.
  • Real Islamophobia– real hatred of and a desire to discriminate against Muslims– belongs to the alt-right in America. American atheists should not flirt with the alt-right, much less shack up with it, by catering to its anti-Muslim sentiments.

I understand why the audience at AA Con gave Alkhandra a standing ovation. I hope that whoever reads this can understand why I was conflicted throughout his talk.

Well…..okay then. Any other thoughts?

I’m really glad I went. So much to chew on, so much to be inspired by, such friendly and excellent people. Thanks, AA Con.

Letter to an advice column, rewritten

Dear Robin,

Our only child is getting married soon. My husband and I love his fiancé and are fully supportive of this arrangement– last year, my husband and I committed to paying for the wedding.

Here’s the problem: Turns out that both my son and his fiancé have different beliefs about religion than we do. As a consequence, their wedding will not cater to our religious beliefs, which we did our absolute best to instil in him while he was growing up– seriously, we really drummed them into him– but apparently didn’t stick.

My husband and I take this extremely personally, to the point that we perceive our son’s beliefs about religion to be somehow chosen specifically to spite us and our family, which we anticipate to be highly embarrassing to our own respective parents when they come to the wedding. And that’s obviously far more important to us than respecting our son’s identity (or his fiancé’s).

My husband and I would, therefore, like to renege on our agreement to fund this wedding, because we are ourselves incredibly spiteful and petty people who don’t have the faintest clue about the long term ramifications this would have for our relationship with our only child.

Recognizing that advice columns are all about seeking validation from some stranger in a public forum, we decided to write to one and see what reassurance we could get that we’re actually good people. We didn’t, however, understand that given our own situation and feelings, the only person who would’ve actually responded with such validation would’ve been Pat Robertson.



Future Mother-in-law

Odds and ends– blog redesign/freeze peaches for sale

So, two things to mention here.

First, hey look! New blog design. I’ve been wanting to change it for quite some time to something more clean and minimalist, and am pretty happy with how things are now. Though I do talk about personal issues from time to time, this isn’t Livejournal and I wanted to veer away from that “diary” appearance where the set dressing can distract from the performance. Please let me know if there are problems with the font style (although I really like Calibri and would hate to change) or size in terms of readability.

Second, I have finally placed freeze peach pendants for sale on my Etsy store. In fact, they’re currently the only thing for sale on that store– I’m hoping to add new items in the next month or two. At Skepticon 7 in November people really seemed to like them, which made me resolve to go back home and make more. But December was fraught with holidays and travel and financial issues, as always, so it took a while longer than expected to get my stuff together. But now it is– kinda. Anyway, we’ll see how they sell and if they’re popular enough I’ll make more batches. Here’s what they look like:

They’re all made individually, so each one is unique– the peaches face different directions, sometimes there are small bubbles, etc. But each comes in a one inch “ice” cube of cured epoxy resin, with a cadmium/nickel bail on the back attached to a 17″ black rubber cord with a molded clasp. That’s a length I like– not too long and not too short– but you can swap it out of course for something else if you’re so inclined. This is so that if you’re just dying to wear your freeze peach the instant it arrives, you can. Hope you like.

Rat Queen Dee

Dee in conversation with her mother

I’m in the market for new comics– but let’s note that to me, all comics are basically new. I have read and loved Maus 1 and 2 by Art Spiegelman and Alan Moore’s Top 10 series, but that’s pretty much it. In thinking about what to start reading I came across some review or another for Rat Queens, maybe this one on The Mary Sue. It sounded like what I was looking for– a good story, amazing art, plenty of humor, and female main characters.

Then I read that one of the characters is an atheist cleric, and I was sold.

An atheist cleric? Yep. Dee is the daughter of two adherents of the blood-drinking squid god N’rygoth. She rejected the faith of her parents and set out on her own to join an all-female band of adventurers called the Rat Queens (all of whom seem to be rejects of some form or another), in which she functions as a magic-user, primarily a healer, apparently drawing on divine magic even though she doesn’t believe in any gods. When Betty, the smidgen (think halfling) thief asks how this is possible, Dee explains “I’m goddess enough.” No, I don’t know exactly what that means either.

That’s in the first volume of Rat Queens, which is the only one currently– the next one should be out in December. And let me stress that the entire thing so far is awesome. Everybody has a backstory, and of course the first volume contains a lot of exposition about those stories. Dee is but one member of a group of talented, badass, sarcastic women of various races who exist in a D&D style fantasy world and spend a good amount of their time making fun of it. But there are some very serious moments too, and they are sharpened by the levity with which they’re contrasted.

The story is by Kurtis J. Wiebe and art by Roc Upchurch. They’ve done an amazing job, and I want everyone to see it. Definitely recommended.

Don’t do this either

Okay, so we’ve pretty well covered how not to talk to and about people you disagree with, right? It can be summed up pretty easily by asking yourself the following question: Does this thing I’m writing/saying/drawing/etc. actually address the substance of what the person I’m talking about is saying/writing/drawing/etc.? Or does it attack irrelevancies? Because focusing on what someone says and addressing that, rather than changing the subject to their looks, their credentials, or anything else isn’t just polite– it’s good arguing. It’s Lesson #1 on Good Arguing, perhaps Remedial Good Arguing.

Another way to attack irrelevancies rather than the substance of your opponent’s argument is to attack arguments your opponent never made. This is typically called strawmanning, although if you go the lengths of flat-out quoting them saying something they never actually said, I think that’s called plain ol’ lying.

The quote is suspicious to me right off the bat for two reasons: 1) I know that Richard Dawkins considers himself a “cultural Christian,” meaning that he acknowledges the extent to which Christianity has shaped the culture in which Westerners live, and sees no conflict in appreciating those elements of culture as an atheist– a standpoint which I wholly agree with, although I don’t really like the term “cultural Christian.” It’s too confusing without the explanation. 2) I have gathered, though I couldn’t tell you from where, the understanding that Dawkins has close to zero knowledge of and interest in video games. I’d be surprised if he knows what “RPG” means.

However, that’s not going to be obvious to everybody. All that a lot of people know about Dawkins, people who despise him and people who love him, is that he’s an atheist who opposes religion. And there’s no shortage of atheists who would most likely agree with the first part of the quote (or rather “quote,” I suppose– putting scare quotes around the word “quote” is so meta), if significantly fewer who would agree with the second part.

I don’t know whether John the Secular actually created the meme he tweeted, or just found it and commented on it. If the latter, then he’s just guilty of being credulous. But that’s an important part of not attacking irrelevancies– don’t be credulous. Don’t just assume that a statement you see attributed to someone you want to attack is authentic, especially if it seems too “good” to be true. As in, laughably easy to discredit and mock.

It’s possible the meme was made as satire, but if it’s intended to be satire then it fails– no clever point is made, and gosh, if you wanted to satirize Richard Dawkins it would be so easy to do better. There’s ample material out there– no need to create new, false statements to attribute to him.

If it’s an attempt to satirize Dawkins’ detractors….no. That’s not how you do that, either. If they believe the quote, then again– they’re just guilty of accidentally buying a lie. But if you created it, or passed it along, you’re guilty of selling it to them.

Making good arguments requires skepticism. And skepticism needs people who can make good arguments.

It should go without saying

Yesterday Ophelia Benson and Richard Dawkins both published, on their respective blogs, a brief joint statement on how atheists should disagree. It’s really unfortunate that such a thing should be necessary, but encouraging that it happened. The statement condemns bullying and harassment generally, and then goes on to cite specific examples of such:

In other words we have to be able to manage disagreement ethically, like reasonable adults, as opposed to brawling like enraged children who need a nap. It should go without saying, but this means no death threats, rape threats, attacks on people’s appearance, age, race, sex, size, haircut; no photoshopping people into demeaning images, no vulgar epithets.

It should go without saying, but this statement comes into the wake of some particularly disgusting instances of people doing exactly these sorts of things, and defending others who have done them. In the comments on this statement on Dawkins’ blog, there are people continuing to defend this kind of behavior:

The reason that people make photoshops of her and her fellow travelers and make derisory comments about her is that they tried very hard to engage in honest discussion with her only to be met with conveniently selective moderation practices, ridiculous accusations of misogyny and a habit of playing the offended victim card to death. People might still have left her to stew in her own juice if not for the attacks on high profile figures over contrived offences. When bloggers jump on board with unevidenced accusations of sexual crimes then they can expect to be lampooned. The rationale behind the ridicule is that there is no point at all in trying to reason with her because she will not give an honest reading to what you say and will likely selectively moderate for effect, so why bother trying to engage politely with her.

No. See, that’s not how it works.

Harassment is not wrong unless you can find some justification in your mind for a person deserving it. It’s wrong, period. If you disagree vehemently with someone, you express this disagreement as an argument. You do not draw childish pictures of them making fun of their appearance. You do not call them demeaning names. You do not, in the same breath, endorse rhetorically punching someone because they won’t listen to you and then, because they complained about the first punch, justify doing it again. You don’t fake a punch and then give them two for flinching. That’s what children and bullies do.

Personally, I see a false dichotomy between harassment and politeness– there’s a world of ways to be rude to and about people without acting like a five year old. But if you’re unable to find a course of action in this realm, I would suggest not engaging with those people. No, going off and drawing a cartoon of them with a pig nose, or spreading around somebody else’s drawing of such, doesn’t qualify as disengagement.

Tribalism is a huge problem in the atheist movement, and my thoughts on that subject are muddled. I haven’t honestly worked out when it’s okay to draw lines in the sand and insist that “we” should no longer value what a certain person has to say because of what they’ve said in the past, or even continue to say, although I think Greta Christina’s recent post on the subject is pretty damn persuasive. There’s only so much time, and only so much attention we have to give, and it’s valid to say that a person’s actions have been so egregious as to disqualify him or her from deserving attention. That doesn’t mean much when you’re talking about someone’s personal attention, but it means a hell of a lot when you’re talking about who to invite to a conference or whose blog to host on your network.

There’s no official code of conduct that people in the atheist movement are forced to follow. If someone behaves reprehensibly, group ostracism is really the only way to deal with it. As a consequence, we continually have people trying to influence the group against someone, or against an organization, because that person or organization is believed to have rendered all charitable assumptions about him/her/them unjustified. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone say (invariably in the comments on the Facebook post of some prominent person in the atheist movement) that they’ve quit “the movement” altogether for this reason. I then laugh inwardly, bitterly, and move on, because the frustration and non committal nature of the statement is so palpable. “I wish I knew how to quit you,” indeed.

Not all “infighting” is created equal. The existence of disagreement, even strong disagreement, does not justify pettiness and childishness. The fact that someone is a “public figure” does not justify it either– public figures are still people. I don’t think it’s tribalistic to tell people who insist otherwise that their behavior disqualifies their views from consideration by people who want rational, respectful dialog, because it’s always possible to find someone expressing the same otherwise worthwhile sentiment while not being a heinous asshole at the same time. We just have to follow up on this promise, and vote with our attention.

I hope we can. I think this joint statement is a move in that direction.

Beliefs? I’ve got ’em.

This meme spotted on Facebook. It’s far from the first one I’ve seen…hence this post.
Hat tip to Ed Brayton for pointing it out in annoyance.

I have beliefs. Some of them are almost certainly false, but I still have them. I do the best I can to hold onto the true ones* and let the false ones go, but sometimes I fail.

I’m hardly rational, all the time– I’m practically made of biases. I can try to correct for those, and realizing that I have them is a huge part of that, but I can’t make them go away.

My default state is not rationality– rationality is what happens when I’m able to focus on an issue and carefully consider it without my emotions running high, using the tools I’ve been taught. Sometimes I use them wrong. I don’t always use the ones I should.

I let the beliefs related to theism go, some time ago– most of them, but I still tend to anthropomorphize all kinds of things, see patterns that aren’t there or at least aren’t there intentionally, and sometimes I’m guilty of magical thinking.

In all of these things, I am very like every other atheist out there. Because I’m also a human being, and that’s how we work. If you consider yourself a rationalist, please stop pretending otherwise. That really isn’t rational.

*Knowledge being justified true belief. 

Barney Frank, atheism, and representation


So Barney Frank came out last night– again. This time as a “pot-smoking atheist” on Real Time With Bill
Maher, when Maher gave himself that label and Frank responded by jokingly asking Maher which one he meant:

Bill Maher: … you were in a fairly safe district. You were not one of those Congresspeople who have to worry about every little thing. You could come on this show, and sit next to a pot-smoking atheist, and it wouldn’t bother you…
Barney Frank: [Pointing back and forth to himself and Maher] Which pot-smoking atheist were you talking about?

Maher was saying this in the context of asking whether Frank felt “liberated” now that he’s no longer in Congress, which is apparently the only time a congressperson can be liberated– when he/she is an ex-congressperson. Presidents can be liberated when they’re ex-presidents. They can start claiming to honestly believe and support things they should have openly believed and supported while in office, but it was too “dangerous” to do so (read: it might damage their chances of re-election). Gay equality. Ending the drug war. Secularism. Etc. It can leave a person wondering if “no taxation without representation” still applies when elected officials will only represent you when they’re no longer in office, that is, when it no longer matters.

Okay, yes, there has been only openly atheist sitting Congressperson– Pete Stark, who was actually the second longest-serving congressman until he lost his seat last year to another Democrat. But given that people without religion are believed to comprise roughly 10-20% of the American population, depending on how you define things, shouldn’t we be at least a little better represented than that? Among 535 voting members…maybe?

Whenever discussion of representation of demographics in government comes up, there is an inevitable argument which comes from people who– quite frankly– seem to oppose a particular candidate and everything he/she stands for, regardless of whatever demographic is applicable, which goes something like this: elected officials should represent the people, which means they should represent everyone. We shouldn’t want officials who represent only those like themselves, which means that demographic shouldn’t matter which means…basically, shut up and be happy with more old white heterosexual Christian men. (I’d say “wealthy,” but that’s so beyond being a given it’s already given before it was given.)

When you hear people talk about the “other” or “othering,” and they’re not talking about Lost, this is what they’re referring to– the unspoken assumption that there is a default, and the default represents everyone, whereas everyone else, that is everyone who is not the default, represents only their specific factions– whatever those may be.  Women can only represent women, black people can only represent black people, gays can only represent gays, secularists can only represent secularists, but straight white old religious guys? They are generic; they are Everyman; they can represent all of us.


In reality, we all have experiences, and those experiences teach us. And those experiences are shaped by our demographics. Our race, our gender identity, our sexual orientation, our religious affiliation (or lack thereof), our class. Etc. No matter how empathetic a white man is, unless he’s John Howard Griffin, he doesn’t know what it’s like to be a black man. Griffin did not know what it’s like to grow up as a black male. The reason that colorblindness is misguided and actually racist rather than racism-alieving is that it ignores the experience conveyed to a person growing up as a human being in their particular race. Experience gives perspective; colorblindness pretends that it has all of the perspective (or that perspective doesn’t matter) without the experience.

Wanting to be represented is wanting people who have shared your experiences, and therefore have the ability to understand your perspective, standing for you. Representation is standing-for. When it comes to government, it is also making-decisions-for.

Unfortunately when it comes to politics, the populist trend pretends that we only want people who have had similar experiences to ours (or at least, what we would like to pretend our experiences have been) representing us, and so you get ridiculous feats of pretension like George W. Bush dressing up as a cowboy. We often use the word “pretension” to refer to elitism, but actually it’s closer to just pretending, in this case pretending to be just folks. To, of course, white heterosexual Christian middle class folks. They want to be represented. In regard to three out of four of those attributes, they always have been and always will be. It would be nice if they’d notice and pay attention to the fourth, as well as the equal need and desire for representation by the rest of us.

Or at least…stop saying that it doesn’t matter.

It matters.

Will the real Islamophobes please stand up?

Richard Dawkins in a still from The Root of All Evil?

No, you don’t have to have read the Qur’an to have opinions about Islam.
Legitimate opinions.
Even scientific opinions.
There, I said it.

Look, I understand that there’s this common assumption that a religion can be summed up in its text. That all believers in a religion believe that the text is the true, unchanging word of God and therefore it can be assumed that the text dictates their beliefs in all regards, which means that adherents of a religion who don’t abide by (your interpretation of) their faith’s text are either renegades or hypocrites or both.

The problem with this is it’s not true.

It’s a myth perpetuated by religious believers who think that because their faith is based on a belief in the text of their religion, wholly and completely, and everybody else who either openly (by their words) or more implicitly (by their deeds) does otherwise is not a true insert-religion-here.

In reality, religion is as much about behavior as it is about belief. In reality, not everybody believes that religious texts are the end-all and be-all of their beliefs. And when they do believe this, it would be the understatement of the year to say that their interpretations of those texts differ (heck, some religions don’t even have texts). In reality, probably the worst thing someone could do when trying to evaluate the effects of religion would be to listen to what religious believers themselves say is a true representation of their faith, and only base their assessments on that. Because– apologies if this sounds harsh– they don’t get to decide what their religion is and does. At least, not for anyone but themselves. The fact of what self-proclaimed adherents say and do is what determines that. And what self-proclaimed adherents say and do is often not in line with what their texts say they should say and do. Sometimes unconsciously, and sometimes very deliberately.

Yes, I’m aware of how central the Qur’an is to Islam. I am aware of the belief that the Qur’an should not even be translated into a language other than Arabic, because Arabic is believed to be God’s own tongue and any reading of the text in another language is therefore inherently flawed and mistaken. I am also aware of the astonishing diversity of beliefs and behaviors on the part of self-professed Muslims regardless.

I am aware that text does not dictate what religion is.
I am annoyed by believers and atheists alike who pretend otherwise.

I also know, for that matter, what real Islamophobia is.
Real Islamophobia is a distortion of reality which makes Muslims inherently lesser by virtue of being Muslim. Real Islamophobia constructs conspiracies of what Muslims believe and do and shrieks about those, rather than things Muslims actually believe and do. Real Islamophobia is “creeping Sharia” in Oklahoma. It’s “Obama is secretly a Muslim.” It’s “Muslims don’t have the same rights as we do because Islam is not a religion; it’s a political agenda– so let’s ban the construction of a Muslim worship center anywhere near Ground Zero.” It’s “We should forbid Muslims from immigrating to our country, because they will take it over and ruin it.” It’s differentiating Muslims from “us” in the first place. It’s rampant in the US and the EU alike, and it’s disgusting. It is bigotry. It is wrong.

You know what doesn’t make you an Islamophobe? Criticizing Islam without having read the Qur’an.

Now, I should stipulate that I’m not saying that Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens aren’t Islamophobes (wasn’t one, in Hitchens’ case). In fact, they may well be/have been. Failing to differentiate between Islam (belief) and Muslims (people) is a good sign of it, and I think all three have done that.

You shouldn’t treat beliefs like people, or people like beliefs, which is one of the reasons why focusing on the text of a religion is so problematic when you’re trying to discuss what the people who actually practice that religion are doing. Sure, you might accuse them of cherry-picking as a last resort if you find that they are actually friendly, polite, non-bigoted, genuinely decent people in spite of the nasty things you’ve found in the text to which they ostensibly adhere. But you can’t make them examples of the great evil that their religion purportedly inflicts on the world, and when talking about this great evil you are not only doing them an injustice but are factually incorrect when you implicate them in your accusation. That’s the problem.

I know it’s a little more complex than just parroting “He hasn’t read the Qur’an and yet says bad things about Islam; he must be a bigot.” But geez….in the interests of accuracy and arguing in good faith (sorry), try and get it right.

Oh, and try not asserting that all atheists (or even “New Atheists”) must agree. Not only do we not have a text; we don’t have clergy either…not being a religion, and all.

Full of Sound and Fury: The Media Response to Dennett

This post previously published as an article in the journal Method & Theory in the Study of Religion in 2008.

What is the best way for a well-known, unabashedly atheistic philosopher to have a discussion with the American general public about the value and nature of religion? It is not an easy question to answer. Daniel Dennett’s recent undertaking of just that task in his book Breaking the Spell has certainly not been short of controversy or criticism, which is entirely as he expects. “By asking for an accounting ofthe pros and cons of religion,” Dennett explains, “I risk getting poked in the nose or worse, and yet I persist” (257). Clearly, he believes the potential nose-poking an acceptable risk to take in order to deliver an urgent message to Americans: that they need to take a hard look at the matter of why religious belief and behavior is so compelling in the first place, as well as what religion is really “good for,” and for whom. The appropriate way to address this matter, Dennett argues, is through a scientific approach-that is, one based on methodological naturalism. Contra Eliade, there will be no privileged space for the sacred, no sense in which religion will be considered sui generis. Dennett dwells in the overlapping realms of evolution and cognition, and it is in these terms that his inquiry takes place.

But wait a minute …. hasn’t this inquiry been going on for quite some time already? What exactly is Dennett trying to do which hasn’t been done already by scientists such as Tom Lawson and Bob McCauley, Pascal Boyer, D. Jason Slone, David Sloan Wilson, and Walter Burkert? The main, critical difference is that Dennett is not only trying to present the best explanations for religion from cognitive science so far, but additionally to a) advocate for this form of inquiry in the first place to the American general audience, and thereby b) encourage a detached evaluation of the purposes (pragmatic and normative) that religion may serve for such an audience. Make no mistake; Dennett is wading into the culture war. And he is trying to do so from the vantage point of the concerned counselor, but whether the audience will accept him in this role is a different story.

A reader used to Dennett’s previous work, expecting a treatment of religion along the lines of Consciousness Explained, may well find Breaking the Spell a bit of a shock. The reason for this is itself an interesting thing to contemplate. The book is explicitly speculative, offering tentative explanations but stipulating that the exploration of religion as a naturalistic phenomenon still has very far to go. Fair enough. But nevertheless Dennett wants to use these ideas to put forth the notion that maybe, just maybe, religion not only does not benefit us in the proximate, here-and-now sense (as opposed to the ultimate sense, a distinction evolutionary accounts often make), but perhaps it doesn’t even benefit us ultimately. perhaps it exists simply to further itself. To make this case he must establish it on memetic theory, painting a picture through a series of metaphors of religion as a possibly parasitic, possibly symbiotic sort of virus that infects humans because of certain qualities which make it appealing because of adaptations we have evolved for other purposes. Certain inference systems we already have make certain aspects of religion “catchy.” It is an epidemiological account, applied to religion previously by Boyer. But it’s a bit unfortunate that Dennett had to introduce this concept, indeed introduce the book, by likening religion to the lancet fluke-a parasite that invades the brain of an ant and causes it to climb to the top of blades of grass in order to be more easily consumed by cows, into whose bellies the parasite seeks to travel. A cunning analogy? Certainly, but not very flattering. Dennett draws this comparison to point out that humans have evolved to a point at which our own biological fitness-producing a larger number of grandchildren than our neighbors-has taken a backseat to proximate interests. Democracy, freedom, justice-these are “ideas to die for,” as he puts it, and we’re comfortable admitting that. But we wouldn’t say that the ant is “dying for” the lancet fluke. Rather, it is killed by, which is a different kettle of fish entirely. And that is why memetic theory, even (or especially) if it is true, is so discomforting. But then again, some respondents simply find the idea vacuous. Columnist Andrew Brown of the Guardian complains that Dennett “sees the difficulties [of theorizing about religion], marches bravely into the swamp and then – about halfway through the book, at exactly the point where we’re wondering how to reach firm ground – he stops, inflates a hot air balloon that’s labeled “memes”, climbs into it and floats away” (February 25, 2006). H. Allen Orr of the New Yorker agrees: “The existence of a god meme is no better established than the existence of a god” (March 27,2006).

Dennett wants to argue that religious memes are ideas that we sometimes die for or kill for, but more commonly devote our lives to, and that perhaps we should step back and contemplate whether we ought to be doing so. But this requires exhorting us to “rebel against the tyranny of selfish replicators,” as Dawkins originally put it when he coined the term in 1976, leaving us to ask precisely who is doing the rebelling, and with what. For it seems that everything is a meme. It remains highly questionable whether the meme of memetic theory-indeed, of naturalistic inquiry into religion-can be more infectious than the religious memes themselves, and perhaps Dennett is being too optimistic to expect them to be. I suspect that he would say that he has to espouse them regardless.

What kind of counselor? 

Probably the most interesting thing about the reactions to Dennett’s book is the perceptions of how he treats his reader. The book is sprinkled with particular asides to particular types of audiences, ostensibly so that he can cover all of his bases and acknowledge the variety of worldviews that people might bring to his work. But quite a few readers have deemed Dennett not to have the best bedside manner. In a particularly scathing appraisal in the New York Times Book Review, Leon Wieseltier complains that “if you disagree with what Dennett says, it is because you fear what he says … Dennett’s own ‘sacred values’ are ‘democracy, justice, life, love and truth.’ This rigs things nicely. If you refuse his ‘impeccably hardheaded and rational ontology,’ then your sacred values must be tyranny, injustice, death, hatred and falsehood” (February 19,2006). Rupert Sheldrake agreed in the Toronto Globe and Mail that “he is pompous when he tries to persuade, even bully, religious believers to go on reading his book, and patronizing toward those who have not achieved the intellectual superiority to which atheists lay claim” (February 4, 2006). But how much of this reaction might stem from Dennett’s candid and proud self-description of atheism? Sheldrake continues that “his commitment to atheism makes him dismiss out of hand the significance of religious experiences.” Adam Kirsch of the New York Sun accuses the book of “frank hostility to religion” and objects that because of his own lack of faith, Dennett is missing the point completely: “at the heart of organized religion, whether one accepts or rejects it, is the truth that metaphysical experience is part of human life. Any adequate account of religion must start from this phenomenological fact. Because Mr. Dennett ignores it, treating religion instead as at best a pastime for dimwits, at worst a holding cell for fanatics, he never really encounters the thing he believes he is writing about” (February 8, 2006).

What sort of response might the book have received had Dennett made no mention of his personal (a)religious convictions? It’s difficult to tell, and as a vocal proponent of the “bright” movement, Dennett would likely argue that that would be missing the point (July 12, 2003). Attempting to give an objective account of religion and its value should not mean taking for granted that religion is true, therefore there shouldn’t be any problem with a person endorsing just that approach who isn’t religious himself. Of course to some people, this makes about as much sense as a tone-deaf person studying music. But such a person can study music-he can study it from the detached perspective of examining how people produce it and how it affects them, which is precisely how Dennett proposes to study religion. That the old insider/outsider problem should rear its ugly head again comes as no surprise, however we must not make the mistake of assuming, as Dennett himself occasionally seems to do in advance, that any objection to his tone or presentation of the issues should be based on that.

Near the end of the book, Dennett describes believing in God as “a kind of falling in love”- no rational evaluation is made, but rather a kind of helplessness in the face of the object of one’s affection (or faith) which results in a steadfast and enduring commitment (254). And ind~ed, his tone occasionally makes Dennett sound like he is playing the role of relationship counselor to an abused spouse. But he may be up against a love much stronger than he bargained for-after all, people tend to fall in love with more than one person in the course of their lives, and at least with another human you have their continuing presence directly confronting you to remind you of their flaws. When one’s love object is perfect and immaterial, who (or what) can compete? A blogger known as Razib on the blog Gene Expression wrote, “Dennett’s schtick that those who think that religious people can’t analyze their beliefs rationally are being patronizing seems really laughable to me. Most atheists I know have a hard time getting around the fact that many people who are extremely bright (no pun intended in the context of Dennett) sincerely believe that supernatural agents exist and affect the world around us … If the likes of Dennett wish to examine religion as a ‘natural phenomenon,’ they need to acknowledge that perhaps for many humans it is as crucial to their cognitive functioning as elimination is to their digestive system” (March 5, 2006). And indeed, that is exactly the basis on which Kirsch argues that Dennett wants to eliminate religion: “By showing that we evolved to believe, Mr. Dennett hopes to reduce belief to the status of an ordinary human disposition, no more mysterious than our appetite for sweets or our sexual drives. And from there, he hopes, it will be only a short hop to demolishing belief altogether, as a vestige of our prehistory that has become maladaptive in an advanced civilization” (February 8, 2006). Dennett does make the argument that religious memes have become “domesticated” over the years, requiring human stewards for their maintenance and reproduction in a way similar to that in which sheep require shepherds. It would not be too far off the mark to suggest that he is also arguing for them to be domesticated in the sense of pacification as well. Not the absence of Christianity or Islam, but rather a “toothless” version, which doubtless is frightening enough to some.

But … is there a god? 

Perhaps the issue that most readers on either side of the fence, theistic or atheistic, anticipated Dennett addressing was the one that has fascinated analytic philosophers of religion for years does God exist? “Is the theistic account ofthe cosmos true or false? Dennett, amazingly, does not care,” writes Wieseltier. ”’The goal of either proving or disproving God’s existence,” he concludes, is “not very important'” (February 19,2006). And indeed, precious few pages are devoted to the question. Precisely because the topic has been quarrelled over for so long without a good record for converting people from either side to the other, Dennett is not especially interested in wading through the arguments, whether they be ontological, cosmological, or teleological (readers interested in the latter argument would be better advised to read Darwin’s Dangerous Idea). However, this is not to say that attributes ascribed to God cannot be tested-and this is precisely what Dennett advocates. If a theist wishes to affirm the existence of a god with empirical effects on the world, such as miracles of healing, then these can and should be proved or disproved using empirical methods.

Such a god, a creator god who is a person to whom you could pray, who intervenes in the world, is the one in relation to whom Dennett is an atheist (“bright”). This he makes clear in the book, though it is not (in my impression) the explicit mission of the book to make all readers into atheists as well. There are obviously those who disagree, and it is difficult to tell whether they would do so regardless of what Dennett wrote, provided he also included the commentary about being a “bright” and being proud of it. Does this mere admission amount to evangelism? And does Dennett’s outspoken atheism, in combination with his reliance on and endorsement of evolutionary theory both in past books and the most recent one, equate evolution itself with atheism? Florida State philosopher of biology Michael Ruse seems to think so, as does Intelligent Design proponent Michael Dembski, and a couple of writers at the Guardian seem uncertain, after a recent print exchange which took place in a variety of formats.

The first shot was thrown by someone who wasn’t actually a participant in the conversation- Wieseltier, who in addition to being personally offended by Breaking the Spell, pronounced it a “sorry instance of present-day scientism,” and other reprehensible things. After reading this review, Ruse decided to email Dennett and jab him about it, to which Dennett replied that he thought the New York Times Book Review under the spell of the “Darwin dreaders,” and suggested that Ruse might be unwittingly helping them out. The exchange grew yet more heated, with Ruse taking umbrage at this comment and taking the opportunity to note that he didn’t find Dennett’s new book worthy of him, with a culminating comment: “I think that you and Richard are absolute disasters in the fight against intelligent design – we are losing this battle, not the least of which is the two new supreme court justices who are certainly going to vote to let it into classrooms – what we need is not knee-jerk atheism but serious grappling with the issues – neither of you are willing to study Christianity seriously and to engage with the ideas – it is just plain silly and grotesquely immoral to claim that Christianity is simply a force for evil, as Richard claims – more than this, we are in a fight, and we need to make allies in the fight, not simply alienate everyone of good will” (February 21, 2006). Then for some reason Ruse decided to pass on these emails to William Dembski, who promptly (probably gleefully) posted them on his blog Uncommon Descent. 

The exchange was then picked up by the Guardian’s Andrew Brown, earlier the author of a less-than-flattering review of the book, who described the blow-by-blow in a gossipy tone as a battle between evolutionists on the question of how best to combat creationism (March 6,.2006). Then columnist Madeleine Bunting, also of the Guardian, related the matter as part of a piece entitled “Why the intelligent design lobby thanks God for Richard Dawkins,” agreeing with Ruse that both Dawkins and Dennett provide unintentional aid to ill proponents because of their ferocity and frank atheism. She quotes Ruse explaining a particular concern: “If Darwinism equals atheism then it can’t be taught in US schools because of the constitutional separation of church and state. It gives the creationists a legal case. Dawkins and Dennett are handing these people a major tool” (March 27, 2006).

Dennett then replied that this was nonsense, as the public schools in American routinely teach facts that conflict with certain religious doctrines-especially in biology (no virgin births, sony) and geology (the earth’s a bit older than 6,000 years).2 But we need to pause now and consider an element of Ruse’s allegation a bit more closely. “If Darwinism equals atheism” … what exactly does that mean? There are several possibilities. Clearly, Ruse does not himself believe that Darwinism “equals” atheism, but he is afraid that Dawkins and Dennett are giving the impression that it does, so the precise meaning must be considered. And would any possible meaning make his statement of the implications correct?

Perhaps he means that evolution forces atheism-that upon hearing about evolution, any theistic person will be instantly de-converted. This obviously is not the case, and no sensible person would claim such since all one need do to disprove it would be to produce a theistic evolutionist (Kenneth Miller would do the job nicely). Then perhaps Ruse is saying that evolution means atheism-that describing evolution is the same as explaining that God does not exist. This would be a hard one to argue, since there is no reason to mention God at any point in a lesson on evolution (one could argue that this in itself is the evidence, though one need not mention God in order to explain how to bake a cake either, and it would be daft to say that cake-baking “means” atheism). Then maybe Ruse means that, rationally considered, evolution makes belief in God incoherent or at least unnecessary. This is a possibility. At least with the respect to the type of god regarding whom both Dawkins and Dennett are atheists, Dawkins at least would likely affirm this to be true. Dennett is rather more cautious, though in his reply to Bunting he notes that “A few evolutionists, such as Ruse and Eugenie Scott, the director of the National Center for Science Education, favor the tactic of insisting that evolutionary biology doesn’t deny the existence of a divine creator … Many others, such as Dawkins and myself, fear that the evasiveness of this gambit fuels suspicion and so contributes to ongoing confusion in the US” (April 4,2006).

I think it would be a fair assessment to say Dennett believes that evolution makes consistent the justification of atheism (if atheism needs justification), and logically negates the type of god in whom most Americans profess belief (whether they really believe, or merely believe in belief), the type of god who receives so much space in his book. Is this what it means to “equal” atheism? And if so … so what? What are the implications?

This year’s meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society featured a lunch-time presentation entitled “It’s Time to Speak Up: A Panel Discussion on the Role of Evolutionary Scientists in Public Discourse.” Dennett was a member of the panel, as was U.S. District Judge John Jones, who presided over Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. After Jones had given his talk (introduced with a standing ovation), Dennett stood to praise all of the work that Jones had done, and to take exception to a single statement from the conclusion of the Dover ruling: “Repeatedly in this trial, Plaintiffs’ scientific experts testified that the theory of evolution represents good science, is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, and that it in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator [emphasis added].” He questioned whether these scientific experts had had their “feet held to the fire,” and was thankful (with a wink) that he and Richard Dawkins had not been the experts called to the stand.

Michael Ruse and those who agree with him may be doing their best to make evolution palatable to the religious believer in the U.S., and may even be correct that people such as Dennett and Dawkins are not helping their cause. But that is a matter of public relations, not constitutional rights, and anyone who tried to make a freedom of expression case on the grounds that evolution “equals” atheism would not have a prayer of winning. If the claim is going to be made (repeatedly) that evolution is compatible with belief in God, then perhaps we ought not leave it at that. Perhaps an attempt ought to be made to explain exactly how it is compatible, and with which kindof god. This is the case Dennett is making, in the name of forthrightness. In every issue on which science is in conflict (or apparently in conflict) with public opinion, there will be those who lean more toward palatability, and those who lean toward “Just the facts, ma’am.” It seems pretty clear who is on which side in this matter. Dennett’s political campaign is not just for the acceptance of evolution, but for the acceptance of atheism-for the population of “brights” in the country. How can he reasonably be expected to remain silent about one while espousing the other?

In Breaking the Spell, Dennett really pulls no punches. The urgency of the book, the candidness of his tone, and his moral arguments mark it as not merely as an introduction to the cognitive science of religion, but an overt attempt to persuade Americans of faith (and without) to carefully, objectively, consider what that means for them as individuals and for society. This in itself would earn the book a negative response from many, leaving aside the question of whether Dennett comes off as genuine in his open-minded approach of “religion may be good for us or bad-let’s find out.” That will have to be left to the reader. Many have waded in on the subject already, and doubtless many more will follow. But when doing so, hopefully they will remember that most of Dennett’s arguments can easily be made by a theist as well, and become intrigued to discover more about what the scientific study of religion has to offer. After all, we’re still only at the beginning, and there are exciting times ahead.

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