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How the toupée fallacy enables judgmental jerks

The toupée fallacy is named for a particular example of the informal fallacy that goes something like this:

All toupées look fake; I’ve never seen one that I couldn’t tell was fake.

Like a lot of fallacies, it’s so painfully obvious when it’s spelled out that you might have a hard time believing that anyone actually entertains this kind of thought. You would immediately respond to a person who said this by replying “Look, genius, you only think that all toupées look fake because the only ones you’ve noticed have been the bad fake ones. The ones that are clearly fake.” They might respond by insisting that they’re very good at detecting the existence of toupées, but that would be beside the point– in fact, it would detract from the point they’re trying to make. If all toupées look fake, then it wouldn’t be necessary to have refined toupée detection skills to detect them.

And of course we wouldn’t care about detecting toupées at all, bad or not, if we weren’t judgmental about the act of wearing a toupée in the first place.  If we didn’t think that being “fake” was wrong, we would not care about “real” vs. “fake.” We most likely wouldn’t have a notion of “fake” in the first place. Instead of Fake Thing vs. Real Thing, there would simply be One Kind of Thing and Another Kind of Thing.

Toupées are kind of an outdated thing to be judgmental about, with the glaring exception of course being Donald Trump. Trump might be single-handedly keeping the toupée fallacy alive specifically regarding toupées. But not in general, because there are so many things people are judgmental about, so many places where people have decided that there’s a “fake” and a “real,” and I’m going to discuss a few.

Cosmetic surgery

The terms “cosmetic surgery” and “plastic surgery” are often used interchangeably, but cosmetic surgery is that brand of plastic surgery performed to enhance a patient’s appearance aesthetically.  The toupée fallacy among people who are judgmental about cosmetic surgery (and gosh, there are a lot of them) occurs because having surgery to improve your appearance is perceived to be wrong. By its own name (“cosmetic”) it’s not medically necessary, therefore it’s not necessary at all. And if you’re one of the people who thinks this way, you have an incentive to believe that cosmetic surgery is obvious– how else would you point out people who have had it and call them out as vain and silly?

But of course, only the obvious cosmetic surgery is obvious. In all other cases the “fake” is indistinguishable from the “real,” unless you happen to have before/after photos of the person in question. If you treat cosmetic surgery as kind of deception committed by a shallow person against the world, this distinction matters.  If you simply see it as a person opting to change his/her appearance for non-medical reasons, it does not. There is no real and fake– there is simply before and after.

No makeup

Wearing makeup is another way in which people– invariably women– are perceive as pulling one over on the world, specifically the heterosexual men of the world. Apparently it’s a crime to make your face look different, even on a temporary basis, because a man could look at it and not realize that you weren’t born looking that way.

The toupée fallacy here takes the form of insisting that women without makeup don’t just look better but are vaguely morally superior (by not taking part in the deception), and of course the person making the judgment can tell perfectly well whether a woman is wearing makeup or not.

Buzzfeed has a list of examples of people praising celebrity women for being “natural” and going without makeup when they are actually wearing minimal makeup or just non-obvious makeup.  If you’ve ever seen a makeup tutorial, you probably know that just as much time and work can go into a non-obvious makeup job as an obvious one.

So much of makeup is corrective– if a person spends an hour hiding her pimples and under-eye circles, and giving herself the appearance of more prominent cheekbones, how is that going to be distinguishable from someone who just has prominent cheekbones, and lacks pimples and under-eye circles?  And what is the moral difference if one of those people is wearing bright orange lipstick while the other is wearing colorless lip balm?

There isn’t one, of course. There are only aesthetic preferences turned normative judgments.

Fake geek girls

The toupée fallacy regarding “fake geek girls,” on the other hand, is not about aesthetic preference– or at least, not just about that. A fake geek girl is a girl who appears to enjoy comics, video games, tabletop games, etc. when she actually doesn’t– or doesn’t enjoy them sufficiently to count. This distinction matters to people who consider themselves gatekeepers of geekdom, and believe that there is an actual problem of girls pretending to be interested in geeky things in order to win the attention and affection of geeky boys.

This kind of person commits the toupée fallacy by assuming that he (generally “he,” but not necessarily) has both the authority and the ability to assess a woman’s actual interest in/knowledge of geeky things and compare it to how much she appears to enjoy these things. Because– again– there is something wrong with appearing to enjoy geeky things more than you actually do. Apparently.

Transmen and transwomen

This is far and away the place where committing the toupée fallacy has the worst consequence– it is literally a matter of life and death.

Transphobia often involves believing that you can tell the difference between trans men and “real” men, between trans women and “real” women, and that this difference matters because being transgender is fundamentally wrong.

Natalie Reed is a trans woman who wrote a blog post specifically about this issue called Passability and the Toupée Fallacy, which discusses the incredible injustice of demanding that trans people “pass” as their claimed gender identity in order to be treated as…well, as people.

To “transition” is to take measures (such as wearing different clothes, getting “top surgery,” hormone replacement therapy, etc.) to change your appearance to more closely match that gender identity, and some trans people transition while others do not. There are various reasons why a trans person might not transition. They might feel more comfortable in their current appearance. They might simply not have the financial ability. For those who do transition, there is a societal expectation that they will or should do so “enough,” if they want to have their identity respected. And in reality, there are people who will never accept that someone’s gender now can differ from the one to which they were assigned at birth. To these people the different gender identity will always be the “fake,” while the previous one was the “real.”

We are moving away from this perception, albeit glacially. It amazes me how strongly society believes that it, not the individual in question, controls their identity.

Because in each of these cases, control is ultimately what we’re talking about. When someone declares they can decide that who you are is “fake,” whereas what you used to be, or what somebody else is, is “real,” they are trying to control you.

They are saying their perception of you matters more than your own of yourself.  They’re saying that even when they can’t tell the difference between the so-called-fake and the so-called-real, this distinction matters, because there’s something wrong with the so-called-fake. Else they wouldn’t consider it fake to begin with.

That’s why this fallacy matters. I wish it only applied to toupées.

Dawkins insults feminists, complains when feminists feel insulted

Last Tuesday (Jan. 26th), Richard Dawkins made the following tweet:

Text: “Obviously doesn’t apply to vast majority of feminists, among whom I count myself.
But the minority are pernicious.”

Here’s a summary of what happened next:

Lindy West began a Twitter conversation with Dawkins, informing him that the woman caricatured in the video is a real person called Chanty Binx. Binx was recorded shouting at a group of Mens’ Rights Activists (MRAs) outside of an event at the University of Toronto in 2013, and the video made her the object of ridicule and harassment, including death threats, by anti-feminists who refer to her as “Big Red.”

Dawkins expressed surprise to learn that Binx is a real person and eventually deleted the tweet with the video, stating that death threats are never acceptable—but not before hedging on the deletion and implying that after having watched the original video of Binx, she might’ve deserved them. Even after deleting the tweet, Dawkins affirmed that Binx is “nasty” and “vile,” that she did deserve “ridicule” and “abundant mockery,” suggested that she might be mentally ill, and implied that she made up the threats against her.

The Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS) had recently invited Dawkins as a speaker in spite of his known tendency to, as Adam Lee put it, “post a horrible misogynist meme, get called out on it, get defensive, go back and delete tweets, repeat.” However, as a result of this particular Twitter dust-up, the NECSS rethought their decision and uninvited Dawkins on the 27th. Steven Novella, a member of NECSS’s executive committee, made a post on his blog Neurologica yesterday detailing the thinking behind this decision.

Considering that the Center for Inquiry (CFI) made an announcement on the 21st that the skeptic organization would be merging with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science (RDFRS), Stephanie Zvan wrote an open letter to CFI’s board of directors urging them to reconsider that merger in light of Dawkins “embracing denialism of harassment.”

Dawkins, you will probably not be surprised to hear, still believes he did nothing wrong.

Text: “Now I’ve heard it all. Now I’m the one accused of generalising about ‘all’ feminists!
What can you do?
Text: “Yes, of course many feminists care passionately about Islamic misogyny. They’re
the ones NOT satirised in the ‘offensive’ joke cartoon.”

He apparently believes that because #NotAllFeminists, because he stated in the original tweet that feminists who love Islamists are the “pernicious minority” of feminists, those feminists in the “vast majority” should not be offended by a video which equates feminism with Islamism.

And let’s mince no words—that is absolutely what it does.

It was made by “Sargon of Akkad,” who I’d never heard of before. Rebecca Watson, however, describes him as a “longtime harasser of me and other women” and Zoë Quinn described Dawkins’s tweet as “promoting a guy who built a career of a stalking and harassing my family.”

Here’s a link to the video, but if it you don’t want to watch it I don’t blame you in the slightest. I didn’t want to watch it either, but did so that I could provide this transcript:

The animated video depicts Chanty Binx sitting at a grand piano, playing it. Next to her stands a man with a long nose and a beard, dressed in jeans, a jacket, and a baseball cap with a picture of what looks like an AK-47 on it. Since I don’t know if this man is supposed to represent a real person or not, I will refer to him simply as “Islamist.”

Their singing is done by a man (“Sargon of Akkad,” I assume), using an a vaguely Arabic accent (which later changes to British) for the Islamist and a whining, nasal tone for Chanty Binx.

Islamist: I am an Islamist

Chanty Binx: I am a feminist. You might not think we have very much in common.

Islamist: But we share essentially the same ideology.

Chanty Binx: And Muslims are oppressed just like every woman.

Islamist: I say “haram.”

Chanty Binx: I say “problematic.”

Islamist: You say everything’s “triggering.”

Chanty Binx: And you say everything’s unquaranic cos you are an Islamist.

Islamist: And you are a feminist.

Both: We have so very much in common.

Islamist: I say “Islamophobia.”

Chanty Binx: I say “misogyny.”

Islamist: I blame the Jewish media.

Chanty Binx: And I blame the patriarchy cos I am a feminist.

Islamist: And I am an Islamist.

Both: A whiny pair of little spastics.

Islamist: You know what makes me feel like really marginalized, yeah? Is when ignorant people remind me that the prophet (alayhi as-salām) had sex with a nine year old girl.

Chanty Binx: Mohammed had sex with a child? Oh, that’s awesome! That means that every white sister and heteronormative pedophile here in the West is guilty of cultural appropriation! And that’s the real societal problem!

Islamist: Oh yeah!

Chanty Binx: See? It’s easy when you look at the world through problematic glasses! (laughs)

Islamist: Oh, who would’ve thought that you and me would get along so well?

Chanty Binx: I say “social justice.”

Islamist: I say “jihad.”

Chanty Binx: I say “Slutwalk.”

Islamist: I say “Whore, where is your hijab?” cos I am an Islamist.

Chanty Binx: And I am a feminist.

Both: We have so very much in common.

Islamist: So do you mind if I rape you now?

Chanty Binx: Oh, don’t be silly. It’s not rape when a Muslim does it! (Both laugh)

Islamist: That is a good one!

Lovely, huh?

So here are a couple of obvious things to note, right off the bat:

The video itself clearly does not consider Islamist feminists to be a “pernicious minority.” Chanty Binx is presented as a feminist– she’s intended to represent feminists generally. The Islamist is, likewise, intended to represent Islamists generally– he’s not merely a “pernicious minority” in Islamism. Actually, Islamism would be better described as a pernicious minority within Islam, and if the Islamist in this video had been described instead as “a Muslim,” then Muslims would be legitimately offended at the generalization. Possibly they should be anyway.

The video mocks concepts that are uncontroversial within feminism:

  • Patriarchy is a social system in which men hold primary power (though intersectional feminists refer to interconnecting systems of power and dominance revolving around race, sexual orientation, class, etc. rather than there being just one type of privilege elevating one group over another).
  • Misogyny is hatred of and/or ingrained contempt for women.
  • Social justice is the entire body of effort to create a more equitable society.

The video equates feminist actions and concepts with elements of Muslim extremism that are their exact opposite, such as Slutwalk vs. calling women “whores” because they are not wearing a hijab. Slutwalk is a celebration of womens’ freedom to dress however they choose without being harassed or sexually assaulted, for crying out loud. On what planet does that indicate that the feminist and the Islamist “share essentially the same ideology”?

Likewise “haram” (forbidden) and “problematic” (problematic)?

Likewise “triggering” (eliciting a negative emotional response such as panic or fear) and “unquranic” (apparently “in violation of the Quran”)?

And of course there’s an element of pretty disgusting ableism thrown in (“a whiny pair of little spastics”) so we don’t have to wonder what kind of people this video is made by and for.

Really, based on Dawkins’s previous comments about Muslims on Twitter, including his bizarre tirade against “clock boy” Ahmed Mohamed, it’s easy to see what he was trying to get at– some feminists have the gall to think that there is such a thing as Islamophobia (bigotry against Muslims) and speak out against it, and in Dawkins’s view these feminists are not just wrong but are enabling Islamism. There are even cultural relativist feminists out there who use the term “Islamophobia” to refer to any criticism of Islam in order to stifle it.

I count myself as the former type of feminist– I’ve seen mosques vandalized or destroyed, non-Muslims denying that Islam is even a religion whose practitioners have the equal right to worship as they choose, and worst of all Muslims (and anyone who looks like they could be Muslims, such as Sikhs) being violently attacked by racist and religious bigots.

However, I’m pretty sure of a few things:

  • Islamophobia exists, and it is not criticism of Islam. It’s bigotry against Muslims for being Muslim.
  • Chanty Binx is not known for being an Islamist or agreeing with Islamists.
  • There is not a feminist alive who thinks that rape isn’t rape if it’s committed by a Muslim.

I would imagine that in addition to considering himself a feminist, Richard Dawkins counts himself as a civil rights activist. And yet I’m trying to imagine him tweeting a link to a video created by a white supremacist depicting a black civil rights activist such as Shaun King singing along with an Islamist, laughing about how they “have so much in common,” because there are a “pernicious minority” of civil rights activists who say that some– or even all– criticisms of Islam are racially-based.

Because hey, he’s not talking about all black civil rights activists (even though the video is)! How absurd would it be for black civil rights activists to get upset about this video equating them with violent bigots when clearly it’s “satire”?  When obviously it’s a “joke,” and the joke is not about them? When Dawkins went to the trouble of putting scare quotes around the word “offensive,” to make it clear that only a dimwit would be offended by the comparison?

Dawkins blames Twitter’s “brevity” for the continuing cycle of his stepping in it, over and over again. He says it “forces you straight to the point, which can sound aggressive.”  But his extreme defensiveness for being called out after stepping in it, and apparent eagerness to rush straight back to the cannons to fire another volley of assholery onto the internet before the furor over the last one has died down, give the lie to this claim.

Perhaps he thinks that if you say it on the internet, it doesn’t matter. Perhaps he has too much of an echo chamber– his supporters were in full force while the exchange with Lindy West was going on– to be able to recognize legitimate criticism and learn from it.  I really couldn’t guess.

But I can be grateful to see, with his “de-platforming” from the NECSS, that this behavior at least has consequences.  Finally.

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.

Rambling diatribe about atheism, politics, and the word “secular”

I don’t know American Atheists president David Silverman, but he strikes me as kind of a brash guy. The kind of person who thinks that atheist activism means pissing off religious people, and if you haven’t succeeded in that then you’re doing it wrong.

But apparently he’s now trying to get along with religious people, or at least with America’s political party most known for being religious, because he tried to get a booth for American Atheists at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. The booth was denied, because it turns out (who knew?) that CPAC feels threatened by atheists. Silverman decided to attend the conference on his own anyway, where he was interviewed by The Raw Story’s Roy Edroso.

It’s not a long interview at all, so read the whole thing. If you do, you’ll see that Silverman initially characterized the positions that social conservatives commonly take on “gay rights, right to die, and abortion rights” as “theocratic” which means that they’re not “real conservatives” (real conservatives aren’t theocratic?) before being interrupted by Edroso, who said that the “Right to Life guys” would object to being told they aren’t real conservatives. At which point Silverman replied:

I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion. You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage.

 …which seems to have annoyed a few atheists into temporarily forgetting what “secular” means. At Skepchick, Sarah Moglia writes:

If by “secular argument,” you mean “a belief based on personal feelings,” then, sure, there’s a secular argument against abortion. There could be a “secular” argument against puppies, in that case. If you’re using “secular” to mean “a logical, science-based, or rational” belief, then no, there is no “secular argument” against abortion. The supposed “secular arguments” against abortion are rooted in misogyny, a lack of understanding of science, and religious overtones.

Which PZ Myers read and replied to with his own blog post entitled There’s a secular argument for wearing underpants on your head. So?  in which he says “I’m trying to figure out what this secular argument is.”

Really? Actually there are a lot of secular arguments against abortion. They include, among others:

  • A fetus is a human. It’s wrong to kill any human. 
  • A fetus is the property of the man whose sperm helped to create it as much as it is of the woman who carries it. Therefore no woman should be able to abort without the permission of the man who inseminated her.
  • Fetal pain
  • Abortions are expensive and hard on a woman’s body, therefore wrong. Something to be avoided if at all possible. 
Note: I didn’t say they were good arguments. 
This is because all that is required for an argument to be secular is that it not be based in religion. That’s it. It has nothing to do with “personal feelings,” which could be religious feelings just as easily as they could be non-religious, and a secular argument is by no means necessarily logical, science-based, or rational, let alone moral. So yeah, you could make a secular argument for wearing underpants on your head, which is why it’s sort of baffling not to be able to grok secular arguments against abortion. 
Something which, as we saw, Silverman only “admitted” when pressed. He clearly is not pro-life himself, so isn’t it a little odd to make a big deal about him acknowledging that secular arguments against abortion exist when he’s not even the one who brought it up? 
Maybe not too terribly odd. See, there are some other important things to consider.
The first is that of course, arguments that are phrased to be secular often come from non-secular motivations. See, for example, the entire Intelligent Design movement. There is no shortage of people on the religious right who see the strategic advantage in trying to Lemon Test their beliefs into law and classrooms by expunging all religious terminology from it, and “Fetuses are people” is the clearest example of that when it comes to abortion. “Person” is a legal category, but the notion of fetal personhood is generally endorsed by people who think God is the one who makes people, therefore when God puts a person in a woman’s uterus she has no business trying to get rid of it. 
You don’t have to believe in souls or even God to make this argument (that is, you can put it in secular terms), but people who make this argument almost inevitably believe in God and souls. The same is true for people who argue against gay marriage by complaining that it’s an aberration of “traditional” marriage, when “tradition” is merely code for “that’s the way God wants it” (and never mind that the Bible is absolutely brimming with nontraditional marriages if that’s what “tradition” means). 
Really, what underlies this reaction to Silverman simply acknowledging that there are secular arguments against abortion is anger at him for trying to market atheism to conservatives in the first place. For being rather conservative himself, albeit not your typical conservative, and then– here’s the kicker– claiming that he’s a true  conservative whereas abortion opponents, opponents of gay marriage– social conservatives– are not. Sorry Dave, but it comes off as a little ridiculous to play No True Conservative when the people you’re saying aren’t True Conservatives (TM) just got done booting your booth from their conference because they felt threatened by you. Surely he should be reserving these comparisons for when CPAC feels threatened by pro-lifers and homophobes. That is, ironically, when it’s no longer actually very conservative at all.

The Raw Story article goes on: 

But why is this his battle? Why not let conservatives be conservatives and just vote for the candidates he likes? “Because I want a choice,” said Silverman. “I don’t get a choice at the voting booth, ever.” He describes himself as a “fiscally conservative” voter who “owns several guns. I’m a strong supporter of the military. I think fiscal responsibility is very important. I see that as pretty conservative. And I have my serious suspicions about Obama. I don’t like that he’s spying on us. I don’t like we’ve got drones killing people…” In the final analysis, “the Democrats are too liberal for me,” he says.

It’s not unusual for libertarians– which is what Silverman actually is, so far as I can tell– to talk this way. Not at all. And it’s not so much that they’re wrong per se, as completely unaware that someone listening has no idea what they’re talking about. I don’t, for example, know what the words “fiscal conservative” mean when coming from the mouth of someone who just called himself a “strong supporter of the military.” There is nothing fiscally conservative about having a defense budget larger than that of the next ten most militarily spendy countries in the world combined.

The term “fiscal conservative” is a libertarian dog whistle, or actually I suppose just a whistle because everybody knows that’s what it means. Is supposed to mean. The problem, of course, is that nobody who calls him or herself a fiscal conservative actually is one, which makes it an even more aggravating theft of terminology than Republicans claiming ownership of the word “family.” Liberals don’t speak up about this more often because they don’t believe that government spending is bad by default and taxation is theft (nor should they; that’s quite sensible of them), but they also recognize that when someone calls him/herself a fiscal conservative what he/she generally means is that he/she is anti-welfare. Anti-government spending, when it might help out minorities, women, and the poor. And liberals don’t think it’s so gosh darned important to be fiscally conservative in the first place, so they rarely point out that ending the drug war, legalizing sex work, cutting back on the military campaigning, even giving out birth control for free (literally, as opposed to mandating that health insurance cover it), you know, the things that make conservatives scream? Would actually save the government boatloads of cash.

The existence of libertarian atheists is, you might say, vexing to liberal atheists. It’s vexing to me as well because libertarians are often morons, prone to doing things like complaining that a sexual harassment policy for a skeptical/atheist conference is a violation of their rights, said rights apparently entailing the freedom to be a sexist boor at a conference without repercussions. Discussions about topics like sexual harassment shouldn’t have to begin with explaining, for the 9,000th time, what’s wrong with sexual harassment in the first place, or how freedom of speech doesn’t apply to private venues where other people have spent good money to get together and exchange ideas and “Sleep with me or you’re a bitch” is not generally one of the ideas they have in mind.

So I can absolutely– totally– understand why someone who has worked for years to connect skeptical/atheist activism with social justice issues, actually improve the world instead of sitting around arguing about whether God does or doesn’t exist, would be infuriated by the notion of the president of American Atheists trying to, in effect, pour some white paint into the enormous black pool of “theocracy” that Silverman even acknowledges is “holding down” a brand of political conservatism that doesn’t involve stepping all over minorities and the poor and taking ownership of their reproductive capacities (since I seriously mixed metaphors there, just imagine the black pool holding things down is the goop that killed Tasha Yar in TNG).

However, differences of political opinion amongst atheists and skeptics also makes me very happy, because it forces us to confront some often inconvenient facts. Like the fact that “secular” only means “without a religious basis.” Like the fact that being right about some very important things does not make you right about everything, and conversely that being very wrong about some things doesn’t make you wrong about others. Like the fact that when you find yourself on the same side as someone you normally disagree with, there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that and counting them as an ally to the extent that they’re willing to be one. Like that refusing to do this comes off as petulant and tribalistic, because it often is.

I want everyone who claims to be skeptical to actually be  skeptical. To make good arguments. To be civil, analytical, and willing to work together for the greater good. Needless to say, I don’t always get what I want. But come on, people…we can do better than this.

Skeptics of Oz

Skeptics of Oz is a free skeptical conference held in Wichita, Kansas, this year on March 16-17 at Wichita State University’s CAC Theater. Here’s the Facebook page. Here’s the line-up of speakers:

Looking forward to it.

How Skepticon is and isn’t like going to church

Is: Skepticon is a gathering of like-minded people on specific dates.
Isn’t: The particular dates don’t matter, except that that also mostly encompass a weekend, but purely for reasons of travel and availability. There is no such thing as a skeptical Sabbath.

Is: Skepticon involves speakers getting up before an audience and issuing proclamations.
Isn’t: Those proclamations are not from an agreed-upon text. There is no official doctrine or dogma.

Hemant Mehta compares the drawings by an eight year old
in Sunday school of a good Christian boy (well-groomed,
carrying a cross) and an atheist boy (tattooed, drinking)

Is: Speakers talk about what’s important to them, and to members of the audience.
Isn’t: What’s important is not furthering belief in supernatural entities.

Is: There is a sacrament.
Isn’t: It’s beer.

Is: There is a lot of talk about religion.
Isn’t: Not generally in a favorable light.

Is: You get to hear “God” a lot.
Isn’t: It’s likely to be followed immediately by “damn.”

Is: It’s free.
Isn’t: Nobody passes a basket. At least, not literally.

Is: There are protesters.

Text: “The Scientific Reliability of The Bible
Psalm 119:138
If the Bible is not true then nothing really
matters. If the Bible is true then nothing else
really matters. [sic]”

Wait, wait, wait….that’s an “is”? Yes. Where (and when) I went to church, there were protesters.
Isn’t: Somewhat different kind of protesters. But not terribly different.

Sign: “If You Died Today, Where
Would You Go?”

Is: It happens on a regular basis.
Isn’t: Skepticon happens once year. People travel hundreds of miles to reach it, because there isn’t anything equivalent happening closer to them.

Is: It’s very segregated. You could make pretty accurate arrangements to meet up with someone by saying “I’ll see you by the black dude at 4:00.”
Isn’t: There was somebody making an issue of this. Unfortunately, a lot of people (including myself…I had to get on the road) weren’t around to hear it.

Is: People feel a surge of enthusiasm and joy from the knowledge that they are amongst others who sympathize on something very important to them. As one was quoted, “Hanging out with people who agree with me recharges and revitalizes me.”
Isn’t: Well…

This quote was mentioned by James Croft on Sunday morning (fittingly) during his talk on skeptical and atheist communities. In light of the fact that “non-religious” is the fastest-growing “religious” faction in America, with 1/3 of people under age 30 fitting that description, Croft was encouraging attendees of Skepticon to join and/or start local organizations for the non-religious in order to have that revitalizing and recharging sense of community more often, and to engage in the kind of proactive ethical pursuits that churches often do (collecting food, toys, etc. for the poor) as secular communities, all over the country, when conventions like Skepticon aren’t taking place. Croft was encouraging everyone to become more active, to translate that feeling of inward belonging into outward action, which– if we’re to be fair– is like pulling teeth to get church members to do. People who live fewer than two miles from their place of worship, from the supposed locus of attention of the ever-loving deity who created the universe. I guess they figure he’ll take care of it for them. Skeptics don’t have that to fall back on.

I think impatience in this case is easy, actually– particularly if you’re the sort of person who has no problem finding people who are very accepting of skepticism and secularism as an important or even necessary element of their day-to-day life, which is also your day-to-day life. It can be easy to discount the comfort that can be found in people who think similarly if you are not one of those (like a secularist in the midwest) who spends every waking moment around people who largely don’t.  

I know, I know, it’s a messy issue. Routinely, the community of skeptics/atheists/secularists runs up against such concerns, and runs up against them hard. Croft bent over backwards in his talk to make the idea of gathering together seem as palatable to secularists– who, incidentally, had already made quite a significant show of being willing to gather together at least once a year, for a couple of days, for the sake of common interest and the comfort that comes from that, and for some socialization. Like cons are known to be– gatherings of enthusiasts.

For me, it was an opportunity to socialize in particular with a friend I’ve known for a good fifteen years (thank you, internet!), but had never met in person.

Gretchen and Ed Brayton

Damn sure it’s not going to be another fifteen years.

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.

Skepticon 5

So, I’m going. Registered, got a hotel room, time off work scheduled, etc.

Haven’t been since 2010, and I’m sure a great deal has changed since then, well beyond a good portion of the speakers. It should be really interesting and a lot of fun…hopefully things like sleep and wifi will be included rather than unexpected bonuses.

If you’re anywhere in the Midwest, you might consider coming too.

Atheism Minus

…is my term for the collective group of idiots who contributed to Jen McCreight deciding that blogging is no longer worth the harassment she has faced on a daily basis. I wish they would form their own organization already. As soon as they hold a conference, the organizers of all other secular conferences could examine the attendees and speakers lists, and know who to forbid from future meetings of their own.

And this news comes only a week after Jen gave a very interesting and hopeful interview with Ed Brayton on his show Culture Wars Radio (available here, and in podcast form on iTunes). Give it a listen– the interview is in the latter half of the show, starting at 59:48.

Oh, on that sexism in atheism/skepticism topic…

If you only read one thing about it– or, more likely, if you’ve read plenty about it and are either borderline overwhelmed or so overwhelmed that you can hardly see “whelmed” from where you stand– read Natalie Reed’s post from a couple of days ago, “All In.” It’s long, but definitely worth reading in its entirety.

If you need some further explanation of the Thunderfoot thing, read this, but it really isn’t the central focus of Natalie’s post. More of a catalyst. I may not come down where she does on every issue, but can’t find a single thing in that essay that I out-and-out disagree with. And she lays it out with a depth and feeling that makes me ashamed of how glibly I summed up the problem in my last post.

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