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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.

A simple ethics of expectations

On the news this morning I listened to a report about a new virus discovered in Saudi Arabia. But after talking about how scary and disturbing that is, it was mentioned that it has infected a total of two people and is believed to be only transmissable from non-human animals to humans, so it probably won’t be any significant threat to the tens of thousands of people expected to flood into the country for the Hajj, the pilgrimmage to Mecca.

And I thought…, I’m glad I don’t believe in a god who wants me to do things.

Not just things like go on a pilgrimmage to a country where I might get infected with a virus, but anything. Because those things might be against my own interests, and because they’re expectations of a god, they’re not expectations I could advisably ignore.

Now, morality requires you to act against your own interests sometimes– only psychopaths go around using other people with absolutely no regard for those peoples’ welfare. But with morality, you’re refraining from harming people for the sake of those people. With the expectations of a god, you’re refraining from doing things because of the demands of a being that you don’t even know exists. And whom you can’t harm.

Frequently, and happily, the expectations of the gods people believe in just happen to be things they would do anyway, because they’re also moral (e.g. giving to the poor). Infrequently, the expectations of the gods people believe in are very immoral indeed (e.g. punishing non-believers). And frequently those expectations are morally neutral or close to it (e.g. making a pilgrimmage). But even a morally neutral expectation can be an unnecessary pain in the ass at best for the believer because it still requires him or her to at least exert some energy, time, and/or money on something he/she wouldn’t otherwise do. And in this case, could actually prove very harmful to him or her.

Good things are worth doing because they’re good.

Good things may be good because of God, or they may not. But regardless, you don’t need to believe in God to know what Good is, and to do good things.

If God is good, then God should only expect us to do good things. Not bad things, and not neutral things. Not because neutral is bad, but because it’s subjective– once you demand that someone do a neutral thing rather than them doing it for their own pleasure, you’re imposing on them. And that’s bad.


Therefore, it would be reasonable for a believer in God to do only those things which God expects that are recognizable as good by the believer him/herself. Which would mean that “God says so” is never sufficient reason to consider something good.

Therefore, a believer who is moral should behave identically* to a non-believer who is moral.

Therefore, you can tell if the god someone believes in is good by whether that person’s behavior reflects an expectation of doing only Good things, not bad things or neutral things.

Therefore, believing in God, if God is good, is a morally neutral thing to do. As is not believing in God. If God is bad or neutral, then believing in God is an imprudent (bad for you) or bad (immoral) thing to do.

*Edit: This is a problematic term. I don’t mean “exactly the same as” but “indistinguishably from.”

International Blasphemy Rights Day

Blasphemy. Noun:
The act or offense of speaking sacrilegiously about God or sacred things; profane talk.

In other words, the act or offense of speaking about religion as though you are not religious. Speaking about a religion as if you are not an adherent of it. And all of us are at least non-adherents of all religions except our own. Some of us aren’t adherents of any religions.

Therefore we are all blasphemers.

Most of us try not to gratuitously insult the religious beliefs of others. This is considered a gesture of respect for the person, since religious beliefs and behavior are not regarded as ordinary beliefs and behavior, but as part of a person’s identity. Perhaps the most important part, to them. But belonging to an exclusivist religion means believing that other religions are not paths to God– at least, not as direct paths as yours is. So even if they don’t say so, adherents of these faiths believe that other faiths are wrong. Or at least mistaken. If you are a committed skeptic, you are aware that religions generally make empirical claims, and some of those empirical claims are false. They do not align with objective reality, so far as you can tell. And if you are an ethical and honest person, you recognize and are willing to acknowledge that sometimes adherents of religions commit grossly harmful acts, and that sometimes they even exalt as admirable figures people who have committed grossly harmful acts in the name of their deity or deities.

Therefore if you are an adherent of an exclusivist faith, a skeptic, and/or an ethical and honest person, you are a blasphemer.

And yet in some places in the world, blasphemy is either illegal or on its way to becoming so. In other places in the world it isn’t illegal, but people consider it grounds to physically attack someone. If you condemn the latter but approve of the former, you are like Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah, Vice Chairman of the International Union of Muslim Scholars who recently cautioned fellow Muslims to refuse to respond to depictions of Muhammad, even insulting ones, with violence. That was admirable, but in the same breath he also asked the U.N. and Western governments to make it criminal to “denigrate the religious symbols” of Muslims. As commenter Abby Normal eloquently put it, “He essentially wants to replace chaotic mob violence with orderly state violence.” It is not the job of the mob or the state to commit violence in order to protect religious feelings.

For these reasons I celebrate International Blasphemy Rights Day today. Not because I get a thrill in provoking or antagonizing, but because I recognize that doing so is both inevitable and necessary. And that religious feelings, while special to those who have them, cannot dictate the freedom of others to speak. If you want to join me in celebrating this day, you don’t need to blaspheme if you don’t want to (or at least, you don’t have to knowingly blaspheme, though you very likely will on accident). You can just think about it. And maybe tell someone else, so they will think about it. That in itself will benefit us all.


Radley Balko got quite a lot of hate mail in response to an article he wrote for HuffPo on Occupy Wall Street. One letter hilariously complains

I am appalled by your lack of integrity. You quoted someone from the Cato Institute but didn’t reveal that you also worked for them. You also didn’t reveal that while they pretend to be conservatives, they are really George Soros peacenicks, homos, and potheads (your probably all three) who wear ties to disguise themselves.

Peacenicks, Homos, and Potheads Who Wear Ties. It has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

Ed Brayton picked this up and reprinted it on his blog, where the first posted response was “Not to forget that Cato is financed in large part by the Koch brothers…” Brayton replied:

So is the ACLU. That doesn’t mean they don’t do great work on many important issues. Nor does the fact that they’re wrong on some issues. I think some people just don’t get the point of a think tank that looks at a large range of issues. They have scholars who specialize in entirely different subjects. Their scholars working on economic regulation issues may be completely wrong and their scholars working on Fourth Amendment or eminent domain issues (or any number of others) may be completely right. Heck, the same scholar may be right on one issue and wrong on others, or right on the overall issue while wrong on some particular facet of it. Welcome to the real world, where no one is right on everything (you and me included).

Following from my recent post on spokespeople…..yes. Of course groups are more complicated. Of course money changing hands encourages bias. Of course we have to decide whether a non-profit/think tank endorses our goals enough to justify supporting them financially. These concerns are all relevant. But an organization receiving money from sources you dislike is not rat poo in your ravioli. It doesn’t irredeemably taint the group as a whole, and it doesn’t make their conclusions false. Good luck finding a politically active organization to support which is funded entirely by people who agree with you. People have different interests, different goals, and if we’re concerned with politics while too busy with life to be full-time activists ourselves, we have to figure out who is doing the closest thing to what we’d be doing if we were activists, and support them.  

If deciding that individuals in public life are your spokespeople and getting angry or denouncing them when they say something “wrong” is unreasonable and unrealistic, then surely doing the same thing with organizations is moreso. Actually thinking critically about the content of information disseminated and the value of acts committed is obviously more work, but it beats simply turning your brain off and putting your entire faith in a group or denouncing that group as evil in every way. Doesn’t it?

Dan Savage as sexual ethicist

As president?  Well, maybe not…but we could do
and have done a lot worse for that, too.

Lutheran pastor Benjamin Dueholm wrote an interesting and thorough article on this subject for Washington Monthly.  It’s definitely worth a read, though I disagree with some of his analysis.  So does Amanda Marcotte, who ripped into the article to some extent for sexist/heteoronormative bias, and Lindsay Beyerstein, who points out that Savage isn’t nearly as opposed to monogamy as he is generally portrayed.  It’s true; he isn’t– though he also doesn’t believe that everybody should be monogamous, or that people who cheat in a monogamous  relationship are necessarily the scum of the earth and should never be forgiven.

Dueholm’s careful description of Savage’s ethos points out that in relationships he emphasizes honesty, autonomy, reciprocity, and willingness to give, which I would characterize as a mature respect for one’s partner. Just as different things make different people happy, different relationships can flourish under varied conditions and one size definitely doesn’t fit all.  Savage’s willingness to acknowledge that and address individual relationships on their own terms is, I think, what has made and kept his column (and now podcast) so popular for so long.  If we as a country were going to appoint a sexual ethics czar, we could do a lot worse.

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