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Some disjointed thoughts on “inclusiveness”

Claudia guest posts at Friendly Atheist on what she dubs “Femalegate“:

The situation: There’s a discussion and the subject of inclusion of woman in the movement comes up. The panel has 5 men and 1 woman. In the audience, men outnumber women two to one. The complaint that women are hit on too much at meet-ups is met with comments about it being “biological” (which can be easily read as, “So suck it up”). Eventually one woman, feeling belittled and passed over in favor of men in the audience, calls the panel out for the use of terminology. In return, she gets jeers and a sarcastic joke.
From here, the situation could have gone in various directions. As a community that prides ourselves on intellectual honesty and the ability to recognize (and even celebrate) nuance, we could have:

  • Had a conversation about how panel discussions on delicate topics should and should not be handled.
  • Discuss how a broad context of many different factors can contribute to making a minority feel unwelcome.
  • Recognize the importance of the original subject and start over brainstorming the kinds of concrete steps that can be taken to make the movement more welcoming to women.

All of these would have been mature, complex, yet worthwhile ways to take the conversation.
We chose none of these.
Instead we decided to spend the better part of a week debating whether the word “female” is offensive (though, to be fair, the guest posters themselves attempted, but failed, to take the debate elsewhere).
Virtually no attention was paid to the broader context. Most comments trying to explain how context matters were totally disregarded in favor of saying “female isn’t offensive!”
You know what can make you feel unwelcome? That when you try to explain why you find something unwelcoming, you are told (in no uncertain terms) that you don’t have the right to feel that way, you’re being oversensitive, or you have to get over yourself. There seem to be a lot of people who say they want to hear from women in regards to how inclusiveness could be improved, but they are absolutely unwilling to admit that they could possibly be doing anything wrong.

There’s a vulnerability in being offended that has been overlooked a bit. I think that non-believers can get used to being more often the offenders rather than the offendees, and can forget that it’s actually pretty taxing to experience feeling bothered about something you consider important, and risk being mocked or thought of as thin-skinned for speaking up about it. It shouldn’t be a point of pride to never be offended…”sucking it up” isn’t a virtue unto itself. Brave people don’t “suck it up;” they speak up.

It’s one thing to listen to the complaints of an offended party and disagree about their validity, and quite another to openly dismiss them as not worthy of any serious consideration. When someone complains about not feeling included, respect the fact that they are to some extent opening themselves up to being thought foolish. Take them seriously, even if you disagree.

Having said that, there is a certain incentive for women who are part of a “boys club” to keep things that way. The most non-inclusive comments can actually come from other women who want to solidify their position as being reasonable and unemotional, unlike those fragile hysterical women who are complaining. The same women who consider themselves feminists, proving that women are capable of cerebral pursuits currently dominated by men, will turn around and slap down other women with the same anti-feminist rhetoric that would drive them crazy if applied to themselves. This is something all of us women/females/whatever have a responsibility to hold ourselves accountable for avoiding.

The subject of men speaking up for female interests is a tricky one–it’s not always easy to tell whether it should be gratifying or annoying. It can be immensely gratifying to know that women aren’t the only ones who care about whether we’re included. It’s annoying, on the other hand, if those men appear to be speaking for us. I sometimes wonder if having “token females” on panels, or as the only ones giving talks about gender, is actually damaging to the interests of the rest of women involved by making it seem as if there’s a Single Female Perspective. Having a multiplicity of female (and male) opinions can relieve the burden of being expected to represent an entire gender and allow women to just speak openly as individuals.

Two very different accounts…

…of the same panel at a regional meeting of American Atheists in Huntsville, Alabama on the subject of gender relations:

One says it all went to hell and it’s no wonder a woman who stood up to ask a question ended up in the bathroom in tears with people consoling her.
The other says the woman who ended up in tears was melodramatic and self-righteous, demanding unreasonable special treatment.

Cue the resulting shitstorm.

Neither one sounds impossible, but neither one sounds like the whole truth either.  Not having been there, there’s no way I can know what parts of which were true and which were not.  What I can suspect is that sexism, or at least confusion regarding how people of different genders should treat each other, is not born of religion.  It might be fostered by religious creeds, but it certainly doesn’t require them to exist.

Jen McCreight, who blogs at Blag Hag, frequently writes about the problem of sexism in atheist organizations.  They do seem to attract men in greater proportions than women, which can lead to a “boys club” atmosphere which makes women feel uncomfortable and unwelcome, thereby causing the gender discrepancy to become a self-perpetuating problem (although at this particular meeting of AA the number of women was estimated at 30% by the first source, which is pretty good considering).  Then there’s the additional factor that atheists like to emphasize a commitment to science, and psychological discussions emerging from evolutionary research tend to emphasize differences between the sexes, which can sometimes be confused with pseudoscientific explanations or be misinterpreted even if it’s actually well-researched and presented, and…well…you can see how the opportunities for misunderstanding and discord tend to crop up like dandelions in springtime, especially when people try to use these explanations as justifications for their behavior.

The only solutions I know:
1.  Be mature and respectful.  In addition to facilitating communication, it highlights the fact that your opponent isn’t willing to exercise these capacities and makes them look like the villain.  😉
2.  Try to be objective.  Don’t take someone’s word for it regarding what happened just because you agree with them general or want to believe that what they say is true.  People who agree with you are still capable of being wrong.
3.  Listen to what people are saying; don’t misrepresent them– creating a straw man version of their thoughts for you to knock down just makes you look foolish.

LGoG

Listening to Julia Sweeney’s “Letting Go of God” for a bit of thought-farming on the relationship between imagination and science. I know that the quote I’m looking for is toward the end, but am listening to the whole thing anyway because I like to listen to Julia Sweeney when I’m moody.  She manages to discuss very serious subjects by making them funny but without removing the gravity.  I have this particular story on DVD as well as in iTunes.  My mother will not watch it– as much as she likes Julia Sweeney, she believes that it’s basically an attempt at atheist indoctrination and doesn’t wish to be converted.  I can’t really blame her for that.  I don’t think that converting anyone is the point, but it’s certainly a story of conversion in more than one regard.  To me it’s mainly a casual, funny monologue about how an intellectually curious person underwent a long, careful examination of beliefs she found very important, and emerged able to articulate her state of mind at each point in the process.  That’s valuable.  And make no mistake, she worked to reach these conclusions.  That’s admirable. An intellectual appetite is an enviable thing to have, but that doesn’t mean that satiating that appetite isn’t still a laborious and sometimes painful process, and listening to someone describe their own journey can inspire you to begin or make further progress on journeys of your own.

I like the honesty and the humility.  You can’t tear down your own fallacious constructions without those things, and having them is the surest way to avoid sounding preachy about the conclusions you’ve reached.

An exercise in getting the last word

So now a Christian group in Fort Worth has hired a “mobile billboard” truck to follow around the buses with the “Millions of Americans are good without God” ads on them.  The truck’s billboards read “I still love you – God” and “2.1 billion people are good with God.”

One of the financiers of the truck interviewed said “These are business owners and individuals that really just want the atheists to know that God hasn’t given up on them.”

Umm….thanks?   The nearest church to me with JESUS IS THE REASON FOR THE SEASON in 5 foot tall letters out next to the road must be all of five blocks away.  Who knows what would happen if I happened to see a bus drive by reminding me that godless people aren’t evil if it weren’t immediately followed by a message reiterating that people with God* aren’t either? For one second life amidst the normal deluge of pro-Christian messages that is living in DFW might be interrupted by someone saying “Hey, we’re okay too.”  Best to drown that out immediately.  Hire a stalkermobile, stat!

Edit:  Somebody on Dispatches commented:

 How about a bus to follow the bus that follows the bus that says “1 billion hindus are good with gansesh” or “1.5 billion muslims are good with allah” or “ancient greeks were good with zeus” or “the norse were good with odin”.

Hee.  If everybody joined in, we could get a good long caravan going…

* Only 2.1 billion?  I guess “good with God” only refers to the Christians. 

Another atheist bus ad controversy…

…this time in my neighborhood.  Well, not my immediate neighborhood, as the Dallas transit authority has refused these ads.  But Fort Worth has not, and local clergy are raising a big stink:

Ministers Justice Coalition of Texas thinks in the wake of the controversial campaign, the T should get rid of all religious ads.
“We have requested and asked that the T would review and revisit the policy and have it changed,” said Rev. Julius Jackson.
A second group of ministers aligned with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference threatened to organize a boycott if the signs are allowed.

The controversial ad slated to go on a total of four buses in Fort Worth that has them so agitated?

Hmmm…doesn’t seem so terrible to me.  A reminder that there are non-believers in the country, and they aren’t evil.  It doesn’t say that denying the existence of God is what makes them good, thus implying that believers aren’t.  It doesn’t say anything negative about religion at all, actually– just that people can be and are good without it.   The ads were paid for by the Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason (DFW CoR), a subdivision of the United Coalition of Reason:

“The point of our national campaign is to reach out to the millions of humanists, atheists and agnostics living in the United States,” explained Fred Edwords, national director of the United Coalition of Reason. “Nontheists like these sometimes don’t realize there’s a community out there for them because they’re inundated with religious messages at every turn. So we hope this will serve as a beacon and let them know they aren’t alone.”

 I found that statement at the DFW CoR web site, since the Fox News video gives the Fort Worth ministers a good deal of time to be outraged, the Fort Worth transit representative a bit to say that they’re just shooting the messenger by threatening to boycott buses, and the head of DFW CoR Terry McDonald about four seconds to say that he didn’t expect people to throw such a fit about it. 

“Dallas decided no. Fort Worth decided to go with it. That’s saying something in terms of courage. Who has the courage to stand up for God!” said Rev. Kyev Tatum.

 I don’t know that it’s the responsibility of city transit authorities to stand up for God, Rev. Tatum.  I thought their job was to accept ads for buses from people who pay for them– that’s what they’ve been doing with pro-religious ads for quite some time without incident.  But apparently sharing that forum with a group of people who are just saying “Hey, we’re here, we don’t believe, and we’re okay” is just too much.  Trying to prevent the posting of a message that contradicts your beliefs sounds like the opposite of courage, to be honest.  More like taking your ball and going home.

So….Skepticon

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 AtheismResources.com, 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.

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…..you’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.

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