Saturday, December 18, 2010

Winning it with Metta

Canvassing used to eat up a lot of my patience for having sensitive and nice conversations, and I'm finally getting my groove back. I had a conversation with somebody who complained about how rude atheists can be, and I made a difference instead of just chewing their face off. I'm pleased with myself, and with the universe for rewarding my effort at kindness.

Yes, this is a Reddit thread.

Not everybody has the spoons to sit down and explain that sometimes atheists act like they're going to be attacked because--newsflash--we basically constantly are. This time I did, and I was pleased with myself and with the person I was talking to and with the universe in general that I was able to make an impact.

Sending out huge gratitude to all the feminists, LGBT activists and wonderful POC who teach me patience every time I say some dumbass thing and they're super nice to me and make me understand new stuff. Turns out atheists need to know how to do that shit, too.

Friday, December 3, 2010

I just got a Droid.

When did phones become this ridiculously advanced? I must have missed it. In 24 hours I went from, "Will my phone connect to the network, or is it a pocketwatch today?" to "Hey look, I can change the colors on my lightsaber and make it Rickroll people when I ignite it."

Science. It works, bitches.

Sunday, November 28, 2010



Dear Beloved One,


Good day and how are you today? I hope fine? After going through your profile,
permit me to inform you of my desire of asking you to be a guardian or foster parent to me and then help me out in what I am about to tell you. I know this may sound strange to you, receiving a mail from an unknown person, but my condition has forced me to do that.

I'm Ms.Celina Toma 21 years old, the only daughter of Late Mr. & Mrs. Joel Toma my father was a very wealthy cocoa merchant here in Abidjan, the economic capital of Cote d'Ivoire. He was poisoned to death by his business associates on one of their outings on a business trip in France, my mother died when I was a baby.

Before the death of my father on 12th February 2008 in a private hospital here in Abidjan, he secretly called me by his bed side and told me that he has the sum of six million Five hundred thousand United State Dollars USD ($6.5million) he deposited in United Nation Diplomatic Custody there in Jakarta-Indonesia, which the United Nation Diplomat will delivery it to you or you travel to Jakarta and claim it in person, because of the legal valuables Insurance.

He then strongly advised me not to seek for assistance in the investment of the money from his lawyer or any of his friends here but to seek for a foreign partner from a country of my choice (outside our country, Cote d Ivoire) that will assist me in the wise investment of the money. I have since left the money in the Diplomatic custody with the view of my making use of it for investment purposes after my education carrier. But as you may be already aware by now, our country (Cote D' Ivoire) is presently at political crises.

Rebels have already taken over the whole Northern part of the country and making efforts towards to capture the commercial center of the country, Abidjan, where I am now.

I want an investment purpose like real estate management or hotel management. Because of this I am honorably seeking your assistance in the following ways with honest:

(1) To serve as a guardian to me and then assist me receiving the money into your care.
(2) To make arrangement for me to come over to your country to further my education and then settle there permanently.

If you accept to stand as my guardian or foster parent to me, I need not discuss on any percentage with you as you have to see the whole money as yours and then assist me invest it. But if you still want a percentage, I am willing to offer you, 30 % of the total money as compensation for your assistance. Please tell me if you feel the percentage I offered is not ok by you. As soon as I receive your concrete assurance to assist me with my proposal and also your full contact address/phone number and pictures, I will give you the United Nation Diplomatic Custody contact to reach MR.KENNEDY MURRY and know their legal procedures to release and deliver it to you as I want to come over to stay with you permanently please.

You shall then be giving me information on when the transaction will be over. I shall also send my pictures to you. No matter what your decision may turn out to be, please I beg you to keep this highly secret for my safety, as I believe that those people that killed my Daddy are still after me here.
For more explanations regarding my situation here.

Thanks and God bless you.
Best regards.
Miss Celina Toma.

This phishing email has, like, a fucking plotline and everything. Bonus? This was from a email address. Côte d'Ivoire my ass.

Monday, November 8, 2010

"Enhanced" pat downs

Rape survivor devastated by TSA "enhanced pat down."

An area Wiccan discovered first hand what most of us are still unaware of – many flyers are now being forced to choose between allowing a TSA agent to see them naked or to have their genitals touched and squeezed as part of what the TSA terms “enhanced pat downs.” Celeste, a survivor of rape, described her experience with the new TSA procedures as devastating.

From a quoted bit within the article:

However, when meeting with privacy officials at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and TSA later that month, I was told unofficially that there were two standards of pat-downs. One for the normal situation where passengers are going through metal detectors and a different pat-down for those who refuse to go through the whole-body scanners.

With this latest announcement, TSA admits that it has been clandestinely punishing passengers for refusing to go through the invasive whole-body scans with an even more intrusive aggressive pat-down and that soon those more invasive pat-down will creep from airport to airport.

I don't even know how to comment on this, it is so outrageous. I'm generally pretty good at ranting, but I'm at a loss for words.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

being willing to be wrong

Greta Christina's new piece, "Can Atheism be Proven Wrong?"

Yes, atheists pretty much agree that no existing religion has a shred of decent evidence to support it. That's why we're atheists. If we thought any religion had supported itself with decent evidence, we'd accept that religion. That's not the game. The game isn't, "What religion that currently exists could convince you that it was right?" The game is, "What hypothetical made-up religion could convince you that it was right?"

Or, to put it another way: We're talking counter-factuals. We understand that the universe, as it is now, is overwhelming in its evidence for atheism and materialism, and against any kind of deity or supernatural realm. We get that. We're talking about alternative universes. We're asking, "What would the world look like if there were a god or gods?"

There is good stuff to be had in here about what would actually convince most atheists that a religion was presenting a reasonable and worthy picture of the world. There's also a link to this page, which gives a pretty good rundown. Where this really gets interesting is after Greta gets done stating for the millionth time that actually atheists are not dogmatic zealots who take their conclusion as an article of faith (that we do, in fact, have standards of evidence--that no religion has met despite ample opportunity). She takes the, "no religion has actually managed to present a hypothesis supportible by evidence," point one step further by cutting off those last three words.

Religions haven't just failed to support their assorted hypotheses with good, solid, carefully gathered, rigorously tested evidence. They've failed to come up with hypotheses that are even worth subjecting to testing. They've failed to come up with hypotheses that are worth the paper they're printed on.

Religions are notorious for vague definitions, unfalsifiable hypotheses, slippery arguments, shoddy excuses for why their supporting evidence is so crummy, and the incessant moving of goalposts. Many theologies are logically contradictory on the face of it -- the Trinity, for instance, or an all-powerful/all-knowing/all-good God who nevertheless permits and even creates evil and suffering -- and while entire books are filled with attempts to explain these contradictions, the conclusions always boil down to, "It's a mystery."

And the so-called "sophisticated modern theologies" define God so vaguely you can't reach any conclusions about what he's like, or what he would and wouldn't do, or how a world with him in it would be any different than a world without him. They define God so abstractly that he might as well not exist. (Either that, or they actually do define God as having specific effects on the world, such as interventions in the process of evolution -- effects that we have no reason whatsoever to think are real, and every reason to think are bunk.)

And when I ask religious believers who aren't theologians to define what exactly they believe, they almost evade the question. They point to the existence of "sophisticated modern theology," without actually explaining what any of this theology says, much less why they believe it. They resort to vagueness, equivocation, excuses for why they shouldn't have to answer the question. In some cases, they get outright hostile at my unmitigated temerity to ask.

It's too bad that lots of the so-called "moderate" religious people that I know personally are all so invested in seeming and feeling rational that they can't just admit that they're not religious because they actually believe its claims are true. It would save us all a lot of effort if they did. I'm tired of having religious people try to throw reasoned arguments and evidence at me and then eventually concede--only after we've both wasted a lot of time and effort--that they don't really find those things persuasive either.

I mean, ffs. If it was never about evidence to begin with, if it's all metaphor and "personal revelation," then why do religious people get so upset when somebody points out that their sermons and holy books are full of fairy tales? And why do they let me give them the benefit of the doubt and hope that THIS TIME, THIS ONE TIME maybe they'll present a reasonable case, if they're just going to switch gears later and admit that they lied about their worldview in the hopes of getting me to sit still and stfu while they practice the flimsy reassurances that allow them to sleep at night?

I think that's one major reason why lots of religious people don't like talking to atheists, or even about religion to each other. It's not that we're all hurtful and mean, or that we're all joyless zealots, or even that we're all oversexed radical liberal feminazi pinko commies. It's this: If Pascal's Wager (or insert your fav apologism here) is the only reason you can face your day, you need everybody around you to be reassuring you that it's sound. Every person who shrugs and finds it unconvincing is a reminder that you've built your life on terror of your life, and an unwillingness to live in the real world. That'd suck, and I guess it does make us sort of mean.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Stop Defending the Catholic Church: Day 5

Day Five: Apologism Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry

I know there are still people reading this--if they haven't defriended me over it--who insist that the real intolerance here is mine, that the real bigotry, hatred, and harm comes from compiling these links and not from the organization whose actions have been reported on. These people are apologists, who will say and do anything to defend their church because that is what they have been taught they must do. Is it loyalty? Is it fear of being cut off from salvation without the church? I don't know, you tell me.

But here's my problem with this sort of apologism. When someone says, "A priest molested me as a child and shamed me into silence," apologists are the ones who say, "Yeah, but not all priests are like that, so try to express your pain in a way that doesn't make Catholics uncomfortable." When someone says, "I was locked in a workhouse and assaulted physically and sexually when I wasn't actively engaged in forced labor," apologists are the ones who say, "That's really sad honey and Imma let you finish, but the church does a lot of charity work and I'd like to derail this conversation to talk about this other thing for a while." When someone says, "Scientific journals have criticized the RCC for their habit of lying to at-risk populations about AIDS," apologists are the ones who say, "Yes, but a condom is just like a cigarette filter! What do doctors know about epidemiology that the College of Cardinals doesn't?"

In short, apologists are the ones who take a conversation that makes them uncomfortable and put their own feelings at the center of it so that rather than talking about the victims of the RCC's wanton callousness, racism, and unvarnished cruelty... we're talking about how sad it is that victims' advocates hurt Catholic people's feelings by pointing these things out. The real problem with apologism is that when you come into this discussion defending the Catholic church, what you are really saying is that you don't like us talking about harsh realities and would rather we discuss a comforting fantasy. Well, you can save that horseshit for church where it belongs. This is the real world.

In the real world, the Catholic Church probably hates you. Stop defending it like a battered wife who's sure her husband really really does love her, he's just got a funny way of showing it and you're sure that if you stay and show the church love and don't make trouble and be everything it asks you to be, it'll understand what it's been doing to you and everything will turn out like the RCC promised you it would be.

It's pathetic. Stop it.

If you missed it, here's Day One: The Church Hates Gays, Day Two: The Church Hates Women, Day Three: The Church Hates Africa, and Day Four: The Church Loves Child Rapists.

Hope you've enjoyed my blog series. This is a topic I've gotten tired of hashing over again and again and again, and now at least I have something I can just link to people when I'm too lazy to deal with the same regurgitated apologism. Feel free to do the same, if you're so inclined. Just link back to me so that I can pat myself on the back and feel useful.

Love, peace, and suchforth,


Saturday, October 23, 2010

Stop Defending the Catholic Church: Day 4

Day Four (the day you were waiting for): The Church Loves Child Rapists

A 9 year old Brazilian girl was repeatedly raped by her stepfather and impregnated with twins: a pregnancy for which the word "dangerous" might as well have been invented. The local archbishop didn't see fit to excommunicate the rapist, but the mother and doctors who terminated the pregnancy clearly had grievously offended god. And no, this wasn't just some outlier whacko. The Vatican backed him up on it.

WI bishops opposed Wisconsin legislation to repeal the statute of limitations on child abuse cases. Whom does that one help, eh? They don't like sex abuse legislation in Connecticut or New York or the D.C. area or Denver or basically anywhere.

New Report Shows Extent of Priest Abuse in Chicago

The percentage of parishes and institutions ministered by credibly accused priests approached 25% in the mid-1990's. In 2009, one in five institutions in the archdiocese still had a credibly accused priest in residence.

"This study raises deeply troubling questions about the way credibly accused priests were sent to parishes and residences. The concentration of assignments in certain areas, the clustering of multiple pedophiles in the same place, and the total absence of assignments to parishes or institutions in other areas, all suggest that assignments were not made strictly in response to changing pastoral needs. The question of what criteria were applied to the assignment of these priests remains to be answered. It is painfully clear that these assignments were not accidental."
Another article on the RCC's habit of relocating predator priests to unsuspecting communities rather than firing them.

The Kansas City Catholic Diocese chooses not to tell the police that one of their priests--who, it should be noted, had received complaints about the way he behaved around children--had a stash of kiddie porn on his computer, and on his very own personal camera.

The Cloyne Report describes the failures of one particularly nasty diocese.
At the launch of the report, the Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald expressed “sincere sympathy with those who have suffered”; offered an apology “for the failings of the state”; and condemned the response of the Cloyne diocese for displaying a culture of “astonishing non-compliance”. Fitzgerald also criticised the Vatican’s response to the crisis, saying that that it was evident its “sole concern was the protection of the institution – not the children”.
When, yeah. I think we knew that.

Cardinal Egan, former Archbishop of New York, once said, “If in hindsight we also discover that mistakes may have been made as regards prompt removal of priests and assistance to victims, I am deeply sorry.” But ten years later he's decided that actually no, he never should have said that because he isn't fuckin' sorry. Cute!

Some 200 Catholic priests suspected of sexual abuse--but not convicted--are living undetected in communities across California, according to an attorney who represents hundreds of plaintiffs who sued the LA Archdiocese alleging molestation they say was inflicted on them by priests and clergy of the church. Trigger warning for explicit ddescription of sexual abuse.

An Australian Bishop indicated that an inquiry into the suicide rate of victims of Catholic priests' sexual abuse was not needed. Here's the money quote: "I think we've learnt a lot of things about what is appropriate behaviour and what's not appropriate behaviour," Bishop Connors said. I'm glad that it only took twenty six of a single priest's victims committing suicide to get to this point! They just didn't realize before that a priest shouldn't be having sexual contact with children, but they get it now, honest, so they're quite sure no investigation is needed.

A German Catholic priest has admitted 280 counts of sexual abuse involving three boys in the past decade, saying he did not think he was doing harm. Oh, well, okay then. I mean, if nobody told him that this wasn't cool I guess I can sort of NO. NO WHAT THE FUCK. What's he waiting for, some arbitrarily-large number of his victims to commit suicide?

The Vatican is arguing the following things as reasons why Benedict shouldn't be deposed: "that the pope has immunity as a head of state; that American bishops who oversaw abusive priests weren’t employees of the Vatican," etc. Not "we didn't do this and you have no evidence," but "the pope has diplomatic immunity so nyah."

Another good defense: Blame the Jews! ...Somehow. There are some other hilarious scapegoats listed here.

But you know what, even if they refuse to accept any responsibility or accountability from outside organizations or governments, the Catholic Church puts the right people on the job to investigate these things when they can, people who really care about protecting kids. Oh wait no.

If you missed it, here's Day One: The Church Hates Gays, and Day Two: The Church Hates Women and Day Three: The Church Hates Africa.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Stop Defending the Catholic Church: Day 3

Day Three: The Church Hates Africa

Scientists at The Lancet are really sick of the Pope distorting the evidence---AKA lying--about AIDS.

It is evidently the official position of the South African RCC that condoms have not prevented a single case of HIV ever, and that's what they're teaching vulnerable African populations. What could possibly go wrong?

Cardinal who heads the Pontifical Council for the Family suggests that condoms in Africa be labelled as unsafe and ineffective, comparing a condom to a cigarette filter. Way helpful, guys.

The RCC has such a problem with Africa that they're willing to let priests rape African nuns. Presumably they're less likely to get AIDS that way than if they rape African children. Or something. Of course, this plan doesn't work as well if you're still also raping the children. But more about that on Day Four!

If you missed it, here's Day One: The Church Hates Gays, and Day Two: The Church Hates Women.

Someone's Got to Set an Example

Thousands of people in Finland have left their church over recent anti-gay remarks.

This is what it looks like when a church is held accountable to members for its anti-gay rhetoric. Huge love to the former members of Finland's Evangelical-Lutheran and Orthodox Churches for actually DEMONSTRATING that this matters to them instead of whining and making excuses like Americans.

Meanwhile the suicides of two more gay teenagers have hit the news.

17-Year-Old Gay Teen Terrel Williams Kills Himself Following After-School Attack

Corey Jackson. 19. Gay. College Student. Killed Himself on Tuesday.

I want all those people who wore purple two days ago to think long and hard about what they're actually willing to do to show solidarity with these kids, or whether they were just looking for a pat on the back and an ego boost for themselves on Wednesday.

If your denomination has made anti-gay statements, show a little backbone and demonstrate that these stories matter to you. I'm tired of choking on the insincerity and excuses from people who claim their hearts are breaking, but won't so much as stop attending churches that preach the very hatred and disdain that feeds this bullying.

Dan Savage is a problematic figure for a lot of reasons (so I'm by no means saying I agree with him on everything forever), but he had it right when he said the following:

The kids of people who see gay people as sinful or damaged or disordered and unworthy of full civil equality—even if those people strive to express their bigotry in the politest possible way (at least when they happen to be addressing a gay person)—learn to see gay people as sinful, damaged, disordered, and unworthy. And while there may not be any gay adults or couples where you live, or at your church, or in your workplace, I promise you that there are gay and lesbian children in your schools. And while you can only attack gays and lesbians at the ballot box, nice and impersonally, your children have the option of attacking actual gays and lesbians, in person, in real time.

Real gay and lesbian children. Not political abstractions, not "sinners." Gay and lesbian children. (...)

You don't have to explicitly "encourage [your] children to mock, hurt, or intimidate" queer kids. Your encouragement—along with your hatred and fear—is implicit. It's here, it's clear, and we're seeing the fruits of it: dead children.

Oh, and those same dehumanizing bigotries that fill your straight children with hate? They fill your gay children with suicidal despair. And you have the nerve to ask me to be more careful with my words?

Stop attending churches you disagree with about homosexuality. Stop dragging your children to churches that are teaching them to hate other kids, or themselves. Stop telling me how much you love your gay friends, and then faithfully attending lectures on how depraved and inverted and unworthy they are.

Show a little backbone and stand behind those convictions, or stop asking for pats on the back for having them. Having them isn't enough. Burden of proof is on you. Nobody is going to believe what you say if you're contradicting it by what you do--or don't do.

Much love to the Finns here. Hopefully Americans will learn from this example.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Stop Defending the Catholic Church: Day 2

Day Two: The Church Hates Women

Women can't be priests. Ordaining a woman is grounds for immediate excommunication, just like heresy, schism, and laying violent hands on the Pope himself. Giving women power within the organization is a serious serious crime and they will immediately kick you out for it. Enough said, right? Well, clearly not, because there are still women attending mass who don't hate themselves, so let's continue.

An individual Catholic priest argued that sexism is bad and women should be ordained, and the Vatican threatened to excommunicate him in the hopes it would shut him up. To be fair, he actually is being a rather poor representative of the church. He's giving people the wrong idea about what they actually stand for, which is sad because I happen to agree with him.

Here's the one that'll come as a surprise to those of you who have a "personal relationship" with Christ that doesn't require you to study the Bible personally. The RCC isn't against abortion because the Bible is pro-infant. They're against it because they hate women.

What, does that sound too unfair? A Catholic hospital performs an abortion to save the mother's life and is ordered by their Bishop never to do it again. Pro-life my ass. They're just anti-woman, and they're willing to leave her other four kids without their mother on this supposedly "pro-child/pro-family" stance.

Toledo Catholic Bishop Leonard Blair has banned parishes and parochial schools from raising funds for the Susan G. Komen Foundation, citing concerns that the global anti-cancer giant may someday fund embryonic stem-cell research. InteractiveLeaf summarized their apparent priorities well here. "It's not like breast cancer hurts real people. Just women, mostly."

Ever hear of Magdalene laundries? The last one finally closed in 1996. Oh, and by the way, if you're curious what happened to the ones who didn't survive, sometimes they were thrown in unmarked graves. But hey! I'm sure they at least got funerals, which is more than the RCC evidently owes gay people.

So yeah! In case there were any doubt, elevating the virginal mother of Jesus does not make you any less a tool of a misogynist system. If you missed it, here's Day One: The Church Hates Gays

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Stop Defending the Catholic Church

Welcome to my blog series on why you should STOP DEFENDING THE CATHOLIC CHURCH

A lot of people don't realize these things are pervasive enough to reflect on the organization itself; they're still thinking it's just isolated incidents. They are wrong. They're entitled to their own values and opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts. These things are not isolated.

Link the following things to people who get pissed when you talk about the Catholic Church as though it's an organization which is actively working to oppress gays, demean women, perpetuate HIV/AIDS, and shelter child rapists.

(A note to loyal Catholic readers: If you feel cornered and attacked and maligned just reading these links, try and imagine how the organization you love so much is making me feel. Oh, and gay people. And all those women they're dehumanizing. Oh, and the dead Africans. And all those kids and their families who made the mistake of trusting a priest. Yeah, those people. Try to check your feelings against theirs before you decide to derail the conversation and make it all about your hurt feelings. Don't worry, I've got an entry just for you on Day Five. So sit tight; I haven't forgotten you, honest.)

Day One: The Church Hates Gays

Before you can get married by the Phoenix diocese, they educate you about how awful gay marriage is and how important it is that Catholics be against it.

The church holds homeless people in DC hostage over gay marriage. Remember this little old news story? If you did, never do that again, because it tells you all you need to know about the organization's priorities.

They do the same thing in Illinois, only this time with foster kids. They claim that they don't want to place kids with any non-married people, but according to the Advocate, they don't mind single straight people people. Evidently it's just the gays! Hear that, kids? Gay parents are so toxic that Illinois Dioceses would prefer you didn't have a family at all. You can thank them later.

The Catholic Church--despite being tax-exempt--spends a lot of money lobbying against gay marriage, because they know they have enough apologists out there to keep them from ever being stripped of their tax-exempt status.

Look how much money Portland, ME's diocese alone spent lobbying against gay marriage.

The next time a Catholic apologist argues that the RCC fights gay marriage to defend religious freedom, link them this. The RCC is outraged that other religions can bless gay unions if their teachings allow for it. They don't care about religious freedom; they just hate gays.

"Gays will never enter the reign of God," says a Mexican Cardinal.

Gay tourists are not welcome at the Vatican.

Gay people don't deserve funerals.

That should keep you busy for today.

Monday, October 4, 2010


You just broke your child. Congratulations.

It's a letter to dads about being a dad, about children. I'm not usually responsive to the usual, "relink this for the children" pleas, but this was actually a goddamned good essay.

I apologize for the heatedness of my post. I believe a part of me feels like a coward for not saying something to the man in front of me at Costco. Consider this post to be my penance. Perhaps a part of me feels that if even one person reads this and decides to be a better dad, it was worth every second that I spent typing it. If one child has a better life because something in my words stirred their father to step up their game, then it was worth every ounce of begging and pleading with you to share this with others, of which I am inevitably going to be guilty.

Dads. Children are gifts. They are not ours for the breaking. They are ours for the making. So stand up with me and show the world that there are a lot of good dads around.

To the men and women who read this post... married or not... parent or not... share this post on Facebook and Twitter, even if it doesn't apply to you because you're already all these things. If you've ever seen a father break his child, share it. You never know what child might get his superhero dad back. You never know what tiny spirit might feel just a little more loved because Dad took the time to tuck her in tonight.

All because you were willing to paste one link and ask others to read it.

He asked for stories about good dads in the comments, and I'm betting that readers here will want one as well. If you've got a story about awesome dadness, I'd love you to post it here, but I'd love it even more if you went and posted it there. Here's mine.

My mother's third husband is an awesome dad. If I liked something that girls traditionally didn't, he got enthused and geeked out over his stepdaughter wanting to build a fort in the woods, or go squirrel hunting, or wanting to hit the military surplus store, or wanting to watch The History Channel all day, mall be damned. He was the one who finally convinced my mother that I needed an eye exam, and probably glasses. He was the only one who believed me when I said I couldn't see through one of my eyes, and I never forgot how jarring it was to speak to an adult and be believed.

I was once being bullied in junior high, and it almost turned into a fight. I think, looking back, that I would have been willing to do far worse to her than she would have to me, just because I was scared and she was merely pissed and insecure. It didn't come to blows, but the school was going to suspend both of us as part of their zero tolerance policy toward fighting.

He went to that administrator's office--in uniform--and asked her how in the hell she, as a woman, could tell another young woman that she deserves to be punished because she was victimized. That it wasn't just her fault, but that she was to be equally punished. I took great comfort in knowing that he made her cry.

My biological father? Eh. I could go on about him, but he's not as large a part of my life anymore. The guy I refer to when I say "my dad" is the third man my mother married, and I'm glad she had the freedom to shop around. I ended up with a guy who didn't want to silence his mouthy sharp-tongued little girl; he just made sure I could defend myself if someone brought me trouble because of it.

He taught me that it's good to stand up for people who need it, but even better to make sure it's safe for them to do it themselves. That's a hell of a good dad move right there.

Friday, September 24, 2010

screwing it up

Dear Apathetic and Cynical Democrats:

If anybody screws up our momentum and advantage, it's going to be you. You're sitting there, wallowing in your learned helplessness, telling yourself that you already worked hard, and it didn't make everything all better. Can't you just sit this one out? You'll have the bonus of being right about yourselves: you can't do anything, nothing that you manage to do will matter, and nothing that you do which matters will last.

I don't want that. Do you? Maybe. Does it have to be that way? No. You were laying groundwork before, and you were laying it for this. You think it won't make a difference whether you work to get more Democrats in office or not? You think it won't? Why? It did last time. Six months ago we got the first piece of our health care reform passed, and a lot of it goes into effect today. Right before the mid-term election, things have changed.

Health Care Reform Changes Effective Today

Starting today, for example, insurers won't be able to exclude children from coverage because of pre-existing conditions. Rescission, which led to many Americans losing their coverage when they needed it most, is forbidden. Young people can now stay on their parents' plan until age 26. Preventive care -- including colonoscopies, mammograms, and immunizations -- must now be covered without co-payments.

Republicans intend to take all of this away, of course, and will fight tooth and nail next year if voters reward them with a majority.

For more details, the White House has a website dedicated to the new law, and you can probably find some good stuff in there.

I'm posting this as a reminder to everybody that this, new credit card regulations, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the Tribal Law and Order Act, and a host of other things are why you guys need to get up off your asses and make sure that the Republicans don't take back the House this November. The few small reforms we've managed to get done are all things that they hate, and they absolutely will take them away if we invite them in the door. You know it and I know it.

Yeah, I know that a lot of Democratic candidates aren't really anything special. Frankly, though, you have two choices. You have one party that's going to pay lip service to your interests, and another part that gets itself re-elected by telling their constituents you are a bunch of greedy, lazy, godless, ignorant, freedom-hating terrorist sympathizers. There's a limit to what the Democrats are going to give us, but learned helplessness is not the answer.

This November, I need you to vote. You remember what it was like when the Republicans got their way. You remember Bush's second term when he could do whatever the hell he wanted, push whatever partisan horseshit came to his mind, and just in general actually do what his insane voter base had put him in office to do?

I want us to have that too. Don't fuck it up. It's about more than the Presidential elections. Some of your Congresscritters are up for re-election, and Indiana, I am looking at you when I say this: You aren't going to make America more progressive by getting lazy and letting Republicans get elected. We're only going to get more truly-progressive Democrats in office if we make it clear that they don't have to play to the radical right wing to get elected. The more Democrats there are overall, the safer it is for the progressives to come out and do what we voted them in office to do.

So do not fuck it up. We need more than a majority. We need a supermajority, because right now, a minority of the house can block things like common-sense election reform. We need there to be fewer Republicans in the House and Senate. This is not a time to rest on our goddamn laurels and say, "Well, we got really close! Good for us!" Now we're close enough that we can see the finish line, so don't fuck it up.

President Obama made a good point last night, and I wanted to close with it.
“The single biggest threat to our success is not the other party,” the president said at the Roosevelt Hotel. “It’s us. It’s complacency. It’s apathy. It’s indifference. It’s people feeling like, well, we only got 80 percent of what we want, we didn't get the other 20, so we’re just going to sit on our hands. We’re not going to go out there. It turns out bringing about change is hard. I thought it was going to be easy. I liked the cute poster of the Obama campaign. I enjoyed the inauguration. It was great when Beyonce and Bono was singing. I didn’t know that we were actually going to have to grind it out, that sometimes we’d have setbacks.”

He's got us nailed, guys. I thought we were proud of finally standing up and fighting for something. Remember how excited we were to use the words "President Obama?" You know why? Because we fought. We fought for something, and realized that we're more powerful than we thought we were. That little voice in our heads telling us nothing we do matters? It was there then, too, and it was dead wrong. It's still wrong.

Remember how Candidate Obama absolutely destroyed his opposition to become President Obama. That was you! What you did once, you can do again. You're no weaker now than you were then. You're no less now than you were then, and you're starting off much closer to your goal. Don't sell yourself short. Selling yourself short is the only possible way that you're going to fuck this up. So don't.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

About Plait's "Don't be a dick" admonishment to atheists

Okay! Since I can't watch Youtube videos (at least not with the sound) due to some odd problem with my OS's Adobe Flash, it's taken me a while to get around to hunting down a transcript of this so that I can respond to it, since evidently it's vital I do so. Seems I missed quite a blowup in the skeptic blogosphere over it as well, while I was off not having the tubez.

The transcript I'm using is from here, so any potential misquotes should be taken with a grain of salt. However, Plait himself linked to this entry on his Twitter account, so it can't be that bad.

My Starting Point

The thing that I wanted to say going into this is that my big concern about this talk is that it was going to come down to a longer and better-rationalized edition of The Tone Argument (which, for those who haven't been hit with it before, is the assertion that the reason nobody listens to women, people of color, trans people, gay people, poor people, etc. is that these people are all too angry from years of not being listened to, and if they were just nicer, people would listen to them. It's a great way to dismiss somebody for being angry at being dismissed). Hopefully this doesn't turn out to be the case, because it's possible to make the practicality and delivery argument without sliding into The Tone Argument. It's just hard.

What Plait Said

The generic person out there, somebody not in our group, they tend to hear a message that science is hard and that it’s boring. And worse, skeptics and scientists, we tend to be thought of as being stuffy and stilted, antisocial, if not evil and downright sociopathic. Atheists eat babies, don’t you know? So it’s a tough sell.

Also, how do believers think of themselves? Many times, their self-identity is wrapped up in their belief. One of the most important things people use to define themselves is their religion or their belief. They might say, “I’m a UFO person” or whatever, doesn’t matter what the belief is.

Not only that, our society stresses faith. How many movies have as their final message something about faith? How many books, how many TV shows? The doubt in the movie is downplayed. The person who is doubting is shown as ineffectual, even bad. And the belief is the highest ideal. [...]

So all of this is stacked against us. And this is a lot of stuff stacked against us. Why in the hell would you want to make it harder to deliver that message?

Practicality here. Not bad. It is worth noting that there is a little bit of a discordant message for a second here: "Don't patronize believers. Don't treat them like they're stupid. Because, you see, believers are fragile soft-minded creatures who are easily swayed into believing (or not believing) things based on what makes them feel good. They don't think very well, but you can't tell them so, because it will only make them think worse and frighten the skittish believer away. Instead you have to seduce them into thinking straight by making sure it's not threatening or difficult at any point."

Personally, I am indeed of the opinion that people who believe crazy things are probably not really solid on their "it's safe to apply critical thinking to everything" analytical backbone.

Frankly, it's demonstrably true that everybody is inclined to believe things which make us feel good and disbelieve things which make us feel bad, and religious believers are the natural result of this. It isn't that what he's saying is inaccurate; it's that he's effectively saying all this in the same breath that he's telling skeptics not to treat believers as though they're lazy critical thinkers. The message seems to be, "We all know that they're not good at thinking, but don't tell them that. They don't think well enough to handle it properly, so let's just keep that our little secret.

What is your goal? What are you trying to accomplish? Before you talk, before you leave a comment, before you engage a pseudoscientist, before you raise your hand, before you sign that email, ask yourself: is this going to help? Is this going to allow me to achieve my goal? And you also need to ask yourself: will this impede me from achieving my goal? Is this just to make me feel better, or am I trying to change the world?

I think that this kind of reflexive engagement is something that a lot of people wrestle with. Frankly, it seems to me that anybody who isn't afraid of conflict will often find themselves enlisted as an attack dog by those who are. That's certainly been my position. As a result, I sort of got the idea eventually that people keep me around to defend them.

This is why I've often had to step back, sit down, and get straight just what I'm trying to accomplish. Am I trying to persuade the person I'm talking to? Generally not. Am I trying to offer support to the people who agree with me, to prevent them from getting burnt out and exhausted? Frequently. Am I just trying to strike out at somebody saying something stupid because it'll make me feel better? Sure, now and again. I don't think that any of these are necessarily terrible motivations, but it is important to be certain which one is actually the goal at hand, so that I don't regret my failure to achieve something that (if I'm honest with myself) I didn't care about anyway.

Meta-Response! IT'S SO META.

This particular blogger gives a lot of excellent point/counterpoint bits at the end of this, and they themselves are noteworthy. This is the one that I happen to agree with. I wanted to give it some special attention, because I've seen first-hand that mockery is a better response to ignorance than engaging with it as though it were an equal "side of the story." See Creationism. See homeopathy.

Matt Dillahunty of the Atheist Community of Austin has pointed out that while many children stop believing in Santa Claus because they catch their parents putting presents under the tree, others stop believing because they get teased about it by the older kids on the school bus. Or at least, this can start them on the road to doubting Santa Claus and figuring out the truth.

More generally, people don’t want to feel foolish. If they think their opinion will get them laughed at, they’re more likely to keep quiet. Now, this doesn’t stop them from believing foolish things, but it does help keep them out of the way when you’re trying to teach someone else. There are still people out there who believe in flying saucers, the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, crop circles, and the CIA conspiracy to kill JFK, but they have no real sway in society because at this point they’re little more than a punchline. 9/11 truthers are, I think, rapidly heading down that road as well.

Along the same lines, while there’s still a lot of racism in the US, at least it’s gotten to the point where it’s no longer socially acceptable. This doesn’t stop people from being racists, but it does mean that anyone who wanted to, say, reintroduce segregated schools would quickly be booed out of the town meeting. If we could get to the point where creationism and ID are widely perceived as being a joke, then that would at least stop people from trying to subvert the teaching of science in public schools, which in itself would be a step forward. So I’ll score this as a point against Phil.

I'm a heavy user of mockery when I'm trying to make a point. Why? Because people who believe or disbelieve an empirical hypothesis based on how it makes them feel are thinking poorly, but what's really fun is to make fun of thinking poorly and then watch them wrestle with, "Thinking poorly is evidently ridiculous. I don't want to be ridiculous; thinking poorly is therefore a threat to my continued happy-feelings. However, thinking poorly is how I often preserve my happy-feelings. ZOMG POSITRONIC LOCK."

And before anybody asks, "Yeah, it's fun to watch, but does it work?" Yes. Yes, it does. It worked on me.

More on Mockery as a Rhetorical Tool

I can't even count the people I know who count themselves paragons of free thought, disobedient enlightenment, and independence because they don't believe that God created the world in six days, but who nonetheless believe that the way they spin their chakras can influence their rate of recovery from physical ailments. Why? Because the people they know (and I know this, because I know them too) mock Christian Creationists, but don't mock chakra-spinning, shen-balancing, fairy-consulting, chi-channeling distance reiki master chiropractor homeopaths who can cure anything that ails you by staring into your eyes, touching your skin, thinking really hard while on the phone with you, twisting your neck, or doing any of the above in the presence of magical water and then diluting that water a hundred times and then giving you the result.

People only protect from critical thinking the ideas which their social and cultural environment allows them to. Yes, I realize I am creating an environment hostile to ideas about Santa Claus, Creationism, fairies, and crystal-healing. Do you know why? Because people only protect ideas from critical thinking to the extent that they can get away with it without being thought ridiculous. Pointing out that what they're protecting is just as ridiculous as what they mock is not counterproductive, it's just uncomfortable for them.

If we're afraid of making people uncomfortable, then we're doomed from the start.

Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them… -Thomas Jefferson, letter to Francis Adrian Van der Kemp, 30 July, 1816

Even More on Ridicule... This Time as a Deprogramming Tool

However! Calling someone an idiot to their face doesn't work. You have to target someone else. It's not scapegoating, because a "scapegoat" is an innocent target being made to pay for the sins of the guilty (see: Jesus, or the literal goats from which the term originates), which isn't the case when you're going after a faith healer who encourages parents to pray away diabetes (to give one example), or a woman who drowns her children because she believes that God talks to mortals and tells them to kill their children (see: Abraham and Isaac). Make someone who is not your conversational partner an object of ridicule for being ridiculous and you give them a powerful social and emotional incentive to not do the same thing. If you consider that we're probably talking about someone who got themselves into their beliefs by similar means (rather than by reason and evidence), then pulling the "social and emotional incentive" lever is a remarkably pointed approach.

The author of the blog entry I'm reading makes one very very good point that I think everybody needs to be aware of, so I'm giving it its own section.

BE EFFECTIVE (even when doing so requires unfair amounts of effort)

Having said that, there’s a lot to be said for doing what it takes to win. When insults and vitriol work, use them; when they don’t, don’t. One problem, though, is that this is not a war, where you destroy the enemy’s army and go home. Or a game, where you score the most points and go home. Or politics, where you only need to worry about one election at a time. What we the skeptical movement are doing is more like homesteading. The problems we face today — ignorance, superstition, and the like — are never going away, because each new generation starts out ignorant, and because our brains are wired for superstition. We need to be in this for the long haul. (...)

Don’t forget that you’re representing the team.

1. Yes. Do things because they work, not because they give us some kind of emotional release. This is true whether we're figuring out how to treat an illness, or we're trying to figure out how to accomplish our goal in a discussion.

2. Duh. A lot of people forget that atheists are like any marginalized group: there's a portrayal of us that a lot of people accept for two reasons: it gives them a convenient way to handwave us, and frankly they often just don't know any better.

We are stereotyped as being angry joyless assholes with a superiority complex. We have as much work to do against that stereotype as any group (which is why being a "nice" atheist is a little like being an "articulate" black man), and the fact that it's not fair doesn't make it any less the case. We have to do extra work to get heard. It's not fair, it's exhausting, it sucks, but we are starting from a rhetorical disadvantage. We either need to compensate for that or be okay with failure.

This is the difference between the practicality argument that I think Plait is making, and The Tone Argument. The Tone Argument says, "You are to blame for the fact that you're still being stepped on, because you've never been nice enough about it for anyone to want to listen to you."

I think Plait is making a different argument, and one that I can indeed get behind. It gives a nod to the truth behind The Tone Argument without laying the sort of blame that this conversation-stopper is known for (and which is basically its only purpose).

People don't want to listen to us, and that's not fucking fair. Unfortunately, wishful thinking isn't gonna make that disadvantage go away, so if we want to be heard, we're just gonna have to prove them wrong about us all being assholes. Which sucks, because once again the marginalized group has to be the "bigger person," while the people in power get to behave however they like. It's always like this, and while it's unfair, wishing it away won't make it go away. Maybe once they've deigned to listen to us, they'll realize how unfair it was to put us in this position to begin with.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Why is the city of Montgomery condemning the property of African-Americans along a civil rights trail?

Over the last decade or so, dozens—perhaps hundreds—of homes in Montgomery have been declared blighted and razed in a similar manner. The owners tend to be disproportionately poor and black, and with little means to fight back. And here's the kicker: Many of the homes fall along a federally funded civil rights trail in the neighborhood where Rosa Parks lived. Activists say the weird pattern may not be coincidence. (...)

Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange didn't respond to my request for an interview, but he has insisted in other outlets that the reaction from Jones, Beito, and other critics is overblown. "I want property owners to act responsibly," Strange told an Atlanta Fox News affiliate last month. "If they don't care about their property then I want them to sell it to somebody that does care."

And yet one city resident, Jimmy McCall, was in the process of building a home when the city declared his property a public nuisance in 2008. When the city said the construction wasn't moving fast enough, McCall got restraining orders from both state and federal courts to prevent the city from destroying the building. The city tore it down anyway, then sent McCall a bill for the destruction. McCall won a court judgment for damages. The city is appealing.

Jim Peera, an Atlanta real estate developer, fought the city for six years over eight acres of low-income housing he owned that the city declared a public nuisance. After he won two court victories, two of his buildings mysteriously caught fire. He says the fire department never investigated, though a city official publicly suggested Peera set the fires himself to collect insurance. Peera eventually broke down and sold his land rather than fight the city's appeals. The property now belongs to Summit Housing Group, one of the country's largest developers of subsidized housing. Mayor Strange told ABC News last month that the city of Montgomery's involvement with these properties ends once the rubble is cleared—that the city isn't taking land from residents and selling it to developers. But in Peera's case, the city of Montgomery, not Summit, wrote the check for his land. (...)

Jim Peera filed an open records request for all of Montgomery's demolitions in 2008, then plotted them on a map, which he presented at a rally earlier this month sponsored by the libertarian public interest firm the Institute for Justice. The first thing you notice about Peera's map is that the vast majority of 2008 demolitions were west of Court Street, a part of the city that's mostly black. Within this area, the demolitions seem to fall rather consistently along the Selma to Montgomery Trail route. Hurst speculates that the city is trying to condemn and seize properties along the trail instead of buying them at fair market value—as eminent domain would require. I wasn't able to substantiate that claim (and short of a smoking gun document, I'm not sure how I could). But even if the demolitions are more generally about keeping eyesores out of a tourist area, it's hard to ignore the context: The city of Montgomery is destroying the homes of low-income, African-American residents along a trail commissioned to celebrate the civil rights movement.

Friday, September 17, 2010

"Buddhism," "Faith," "Confirmed Confidence," and Scare Quotes

Defining "faith" here as "the belief in something without needing or even in spite of a persuasive empirical case." Therefore believing in Germ Theory is not an article of faith, but believing in a God, or ghosts, or reincarnation, or heaven, or karma, is.

(Notable aside: I've seen it suggested that the word "saddha" which often gets translated "faith" in English is closer to "confirmed confidence" in meaning. This means that "saddha" refers to the kind of faith we have that rain is caused by condensing water vapor, rather than the kind of faith we have that rain is caused by cracks in the firmament.)

Dharma practice is good, because it's a set of tools to accomplish certain things. The rest is there basically for explanations and examples. Dharma practice is a process that can do some good for just about anybody. However, the things that Buddha taught which are actually tools to advance and improve oneself (4NT and the 8FP) don't require the practitioner to believe anything that flies in the face of evidence.

Lots of Buddhists say that Buddhism requires faith (in reincarnation, in metaphysical "what goes around comes around"-style karma, in bodhisattvas, etc.) but doesn't require blind faith. Frankly I've heard the same statement from followers of the big monotheist traditions which nevertheless require adherents to build their lives around assertions like "there's a wish-granting moody man in the sky who likes you best." People who believe this don't believe they're being irrational or believing things which fly in the face of evidence, and I don't see the people who believe in things like karma or rebirth to be all that much different.

Not everybody who has an opinion about a subject has an opinion because of "faith," but everybody who believes something supernatural, superstitious, or otherwise metaphysical most certainly does, because there's no empirical support for the existence of those things (or it wouldn't require faith to believe in them). As a result, "faith" (which is always blind wishful thinking, imo) plays a large role in a lot of people's dharma practice, but not in mine.

After I explain this, I often run into a few questions/objections (more the latter, since people of faith seldom think to ask me anything), and rather than go through this conversation again for the millionth time, I'm just gonna post the FAQ and hope that it saves a little labor for all of us.

OBJECTION ONE: "But there is no truth but personal truth, and nobody has the REAL answers, so one answer is as good as another, right?" (AKA Argument from Postmodernism)

The common question at this point is "what is evidence?" "What kind of evidence can you find which isn't subjective and on some level taken on faith?" I say it's a common question because I've had some of the same conversations with Buddhists now that I have had with Christians on this subject, and since it always comes up eventually, I'd better just address it.

It's occasionally an interesting thought experiment to say "nothing is objectively true, there is no reality outside of our perception of it, and there's no such thing as truth," but it's not particularly useful in the here and now. When I ask my doctor whether I'm sick because of a bacterium or a virus, this viewpoint is not useful. When I ask my partner whether we have enough money to cover our expenses, this viewpoint is not useful. Why? Because these are practical questions.

Questions of suffering are practical questions. This is why I often refer to my particular path as "dharma practice" and not "Buddhism." I've seen too much suffering caused by belief systems that come packaged with beliefs that must be taken on faith for it to seem plausible that yet another one is the solution.

Until anybody who believes in karma or rebirth fulfils their burden of proof and persuades me, I'm not going to live as though they're true. Why? Because I have actual problems to solve in my actual life, and I can't do this unless I'm only factoring in things which are likely to be true. Considering that the tools of dharma practice that Buddha laid out deal with actual problems for my actual life, I see no reason to distract myself by clinging to past lives or yearning for future ones. I see no reason to worry about them at all. Aren't we, as Buddhists, supposed to be living in the present and aware of what's going on around us now?

OBJECTION TWO: "But everybody has faith in something." (AKA Argument from I Know You Are But What Am I)

First off, see the beginning of this little ramble. If my answer to this isn't already clear, then I'll elaborate, becaue this one is actually a big pet peeve of mine.

On a personal level, I honestly find it rather distasteful to muddy the discussion by referring to everything that everybody gives weight to as "faith." I don't have "faith" in Germ Theory the way my dad has faith in Jesus. I don't have "faith" in natural selection the way some people I know have "faith" in Young Earth Creationism. By the same token, I don't have "faith" that I'm capable of disciplining my own mind the way that some Buddhists have "faith" that praying to a Bodhisattva will acquire them merit.

I think the difference between "faith in Jesus/reincarnation/etc." and "faith that gravity pulls objects toward the center of the Earth when we are standing on its surface" has been adequately covered earlier in the thread. After a while discussing this issue with various people in various places, it's starting to seem to me that the people who say, "well, everybody has something they take on faith" are either deliberately fudging the way evidence-based beliefs are formed so that they cease to seem different from articles of faith, or they don't actually understand how people form opinions without faith-based assumptions.

I'm going to argue again that belief in things without (or even despite) evidence is a bad idea, because we have more than enough problems in the real world to think we're going to solve anything by starting with a misapprehension of the conditions around us. We're not going to solve human suffering by inventing superstitious ideas about the sources or implications of suffering any more than we can cure disease by inventing superstitious ideas about how it spreads or its symptoms.

I don't mean to be harsh, but it's sort of a pet peeve of mine when people say, "Oh, well, everybody takes things on faith." It may serve to smooth over differences by implying that we're all doing the same thing when it comes down to it, but it's unfortunately demonstrably untrue, and lasting peace and tolerance can't be built on that sort of friendly dishonesty. I'd much rather believers think I'm strange and overintellectualizing and missing the point than have them be friends with a figment of me and my path that I don't really recognize.

Again. A lot of people make use of faith. However, it is extremely important to note that not everybody does. Assertions to the contrary don't help people get along despite their differences any more than misapprehensions about any other part of our human experience. Faith plays a large role in many peoples' Buddhist practice, but not in mine.

OBJECTION THREE: "Well, there are just some questions that aren't for reason and rationality to solve." (AKA Argument from Inapplicability of Arguments)

Dear Humanity: Stop conflating faith and confirmed confidence. These two things can only be conflated if you do one of the following things:

A. Create separate categories for things which may be decided upon with faith-based reasoning, and which must be decided upon with empirical thinking. For example: Most people (though not all) place medicine in this category. They'll pray for recovery, but they'll take antibiotics as well.

B. Allow faith to subvert empirical reasoning all the time. The Church of Christian Science is one big one. They'll pray for recovery, and be insulted by the suggestion that they need antibiotics as much as they need the protection of the Lord.

Option A seems to imply that there are questions which are "safe" to apply limited critical thinking and empirical examination to, and questions for which that's not good enough. I say that even that much faith is too much faith, because if you have to exclude something from the most important decisions, then it probably isn't helping the lesser ones either.

Again. Finally. In summary. Etcetera. Faith is wishful thinking. Period dot. Nothing I've read of the Buddha suggests that he thought very much of wishful thinking as a problem-solving tool. This doesn't mean that it has no place in Buddhist religions or cultures, but it does mean that it's probably something of a departure from what Buddha himself actually suggested. Furthermore, Buddha's opinion aside, there's nothing that suggests to me that it'd be worth including at all, which is why (once again) I don't.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

cultural divide

Reading Bridging the Chasm Between Two Cultures was an interesting experience for me. I found it on axelrod's Dreamwidth journal. It's about the gulf between the culture of New Agers and the culture of skeptics, and how those cultures create ways of communicating which do not meet in the middle at all.

In all the din, people in my culture hear what they deem to be hyper-intellectual and emotionally charged attacks upon their cherished beliefs, while people in your culture hear what they deem to be wishful thinking, scientific illiteracy, and emotionally charged salvos in defense of mere delusions.

This is of course a tragedy, but after reading through the skeptical literature for the last three years, I feel that this tragedy may be avoidable.

On the one hand, I felt at first like her point might be that skeptics like James Randi actually fuel a backlash against critically-evaluating cherished and fun metaphysical beliefs like Uri Geller's spoonbending. I sort of... tilted my head and got ready for the Tone Argument, the one that says "nobody is listening to you because you're an angry unlikeable asshole, and angry unlikeable assholes deserve to be ignored no matter what the merit of what they're saying. New Agers won't listen until you're not an asshole."

It didn't come. So here are a few sections from this very thoughtful article. I know it's long, but I read it, and anybody who's had conversations as either a skeptic or a believer should read it. In fact, anybody who has refused to have those conversations for any reason should definitely read it. I know that I've chopped it up into odd quoted sections and put it out of order, but this is at least partly so that when you get to the parts I've quoted you'll say, "Ah. There's that paragraph," and you'll have a chance to read it a second time like (in most cases) I did.

I've been studying the conflict between the skeptical community and the metaphysical/new age community for a few decades now, and I think I've finally discovered the central issue that makes communication so difficult. It is not merely, as many surmise, a conflict between fact-based viewpoints and faith-based viewpoints. Nor is it simply a conflict between rationality and credulity. No, it’s a full-on clash of cultures that makes real communication improbable at best.

Something the skeptics in the audience should note:
I couldn't find myself in the skeptical lexicon. I couldn't identify myself with the uncaring hucksters, the wildly miseducated snake-oil peddlers, the self-righteous psychics, the big-haired evangelists, or the megalomaniacal eastern fakirs. I couldn't identify my work or myself with the scam-based work or the unstable personalities so roundly trashed by the skeptical culture, because I was never in the field to scam anyone—and neither were any of my friends or colleagues.

I worked in the field because I have a deep and abiding concern for people, and an honest wish to be helpful in my own culture. Access to clearheaded and carefully presented skeptical material would have helped me (and others like me) at every step of the way—but I couldn't access any of that information because I simply couldn't identify with it.

Something the New Agers in the audience should note:
One of the biggest falsehoods I've encountered is that skeptics can't tolerate mystery, while New Age people can. This is completely wrong, because it is actually the people in my culture who can't handle mystery—not even a tiny bit of it. Everything in my New Age culture comes complete with an answer, a reason, and a source. Every action, emotion, health symptom, dream, accident, birth, death, or idea here has a direct link to the influence of the stars, chi, past lives, ancestors, energy fields, interdimensional beings, enneagrams, devas, fairies, spirit guides, angels, aliens, karma, God, or the Goddess.

We love to say that we embrace mystery in the New Age culture, but that’s a cultural conceit and it’s utterly wrong.

This one I was saving for last, because it hurt a little to read.
I've discovered in just the few (less than ten) conversations I've had with faith-based people that skeptical information is absolutely threatening and unwanted. What I didn't understand until recently is that when you start questioning these beliefs, there’s a domino effect that eventually smacks into your whole house of cards—and nothing remains standing. Opening the questioning process is a very dangerous thing, and people in my culture seem to understand that on a subconscious level. In response to their extreme discomfort, I've become completely silent around believers—which is hard, because they make up most of my friends, family, and correspondents.

This one hit close to home for me. I actually physically winced away from my screen as I read it the first time, because it hurts.

It's very isolating to be the one who can't stop herself from applying intellectual rigor where it's not supposed to, because when you make people uncomfortable like that, it feels sometimes like nobody wants you around. I've wrestled with this one a lot. Sometimes I come out on the side of, "Just don't say anything, because everybody already knows what your opinion probably is and if they wanted to hear it, they'd ask. But nobody is asking, because they don't like the way you think and can only be friends with you if they can pretend you don't think like that." Sometimes I come out on the side of, "Goddamn it why is everybody allowed to give their opinion but me! Screw it, I'm saying something like everybody else gets to do. If they don't want to hear from me, then they should stop acting like I'm allowed in the conversation."

I still wrestle with it, though. I don't know what the answer is. Sometimes I just want to crawl all the way into a culture where people like me who "over-intellectualize" the questions we find are considered okay, and useful, and maybe even desirable. Sometimes I'm afraid I'll miss the people I'll leave behind who used to love me, back before they realized that I'm the enemy.

I think that last quote is why I posted it. It's an apology for the fact that I can't unthink the things I've thought, and for the fact that it means I don't feel wanted anymore. Sometimes I want to slip away quietly so that I don't destroy anybody else's house of cards like I destroyed mine, but sometimes I just want to wreck it all because I know that in the long run that the tricky balance between reason and faith isn't sustainable anyway, and I hate feeling something so stupid: hurt that I've been kicked off the sinking ship.

I guess what I'm saying is that skeptics aren't angry all the time. Skeptics don't hate New Agers all the time or even very much of the time, honestly. We understand what New Agers are getting out of their culture, because a lot of us used to be there. Some of us even miss it. We just can't have it anymore. We can't unthink what we've thought, and we can't pretend we didn't see what we saw. We stared into the void of suspended assumptions, and it stared back, and now we're... not like you. And we know you can tell. Sometimes that hurts.

I didn't mean to make this about me. But... the article really resonated with me, and I didn't expect it to do that. As a skeptic, but more importantly as a social scientist, I am saddened by my inability to bridge this gap. I feel, as an anthropologist and a crowd-pleaser class clown, that I should be doing better. I should be the one who can be anywhere, who can fit in with anybody, who can figure out what everybody wants from her and give it to them no matter how complex and unexpected the demands may be.

I'm not doing it. I'm failing.

It's unsettling, and disappointing, and hasn't ever happened before to me. No wonder believers are afraid to ask certain questions; they're afraid they'll turn out like me. Maybe they should be. Sometimes it kind of sucks.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Gratitude Project

The Gratitude Project was begun several years ago by a LiveJournal user called estaratshirai . The rules are simple. Every day between Lammas (August 1st) and Mabon (the Autumnal Equinox) one must find something to be grateful for in life. No repeats - one can be grateful to people more than once, but it has to be for different reasons.


I am grateful for this BellaVitano cheese that tastes like parmesan and feels like cheddar.


I'm grateful that the weather's supposed to be better this week, thus allowing me to resume paying my bills.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Preach it, Sister.

I just had a server at a restaurant make a point to tell me that God is real and loves me more than I could ever know. I guess sitting by myself and reading counts as a provocative conversation-starter if I have the temerity to read The God Delusion where other people can see.

Look at me, flaunting my atheism. I'm no better than those women who hold hands with their wives, or men who meet their husbands for lunch. Look at me being a freak and flaunting it front of the normals, oh no.

Oh, the pushy preachiness of not hiding. I think that theism is pretty questionable on a lot of levels, but I wouldn't pause in the performance of my job duties to lecture somebody reading theological trash like the Left Behind series. Why? Because believe it or not, simply being willing to be seen publicly as a believer or nonbeliever is not the same as inviting a theological debate.

The Gratitude Project again and again and again

The Gratitude Project was begun several years ago by a LiveJournal user called estaratshirai . The rules are simple. Every day between Lammas (August 1st) and Mabon (the Autumnal Equinox) one must find something to be grateful for in life. No repeats - one can be grateful to people more than once, but it has to be for different reasons.


I'm grateful for the people who share my hobbies, and keep me from getting bored or lonely while Brian takes a vacation in California and I take an involuntary vacation from work due to health problems. Having people to connect with and have fun with without being out and doing harm to myself... it's good, and has been particularly useful this week.


I'm grateful to Stephen Batchelor, for writing honestly about dharma practice which doesn't include--and doesn't need to include--specious claims that fly in the face of established knowledge about our world. The fact that dharma practice can be taken and used as Siddhartha Gautama intended without accepting the assumptions of Hinduism which colored those lessons... it's given me a lot of room to grow, and it took a long time for anybody to really come out and say that this was okay.


I'm grateful to Gmail for having a good spam blocker. I laugh at your Hotmail! Ha!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

About Moderation

This entry started as a comment on this entry about what "Progressive Christian" actually means. It's a subject about which I've given a lot of thought, and I've held this opinion for a pretty long time before being willing to say anything about it. There's a lot that I believe that I'm unwilling to say, for fear of alienating people who would otherwise be my allies.

Isn't that silly? Once I really looked at it, I realized what a condescending and nasty thing that is for me to think about my moderate theist friends. If you learn what I really think, you'll stop caring whether the courts blame rape victims, whether our judicial system executes an inordinate number of mentally-challenged and black or latino convicts, or whether gays ever have equal contractual rights in this country. You'll stop fighting with me if you hear the things that I didn't want to hear back when I was a theist.

I didn't, though. When I was a theist, I listened. Eventually. Brian can attest that it took a lot of time and patience on both of our parts before we came to a meeting-place on the question, but I didn't abandon the people and causes I cared about, so I'm going to trust the people reading this not to do it either.

See, when theism was still something I was down with, I'd get kind of butthurt when atheists lumped all religious people together and said that anybody who believes in a God is failing to get it, is unwilling to face their beliefs head-on and really question them, and is enshrining a dangerous irrationality. I hated it when I was painted as complicit in the social evils perpetuated by conservative religion. After all, I was a friendly science-loving atheist-dating Pagan. That stuff had nothing to do with me, and I was actively involved in fighting the tide of hatred and bigotry that came from those other traditions.

I thought, "What does this have to do with me? Don't they know that not all theists are like that? Some of us like you guys!"

I think it's the kind of argument that takes a while to really sink in. For example, I know guys who seriously have failed to understand why I didn't want to walk someplace alone at night. If I say, "Listen, if you were a woman and you lived with a target on your back and an entire culture ready to blame you for getting hurt because you weren't aware enough of that, you would refuse to go anyplace alone, too," the correct response is not, "Yeah, I mean, I see what you're saying, but you gotta understand. Not all men are like that, and it kind of hurts my feelings that you look at us all the same way."

To contrast, I've had guy friends who say, "Oh. Shit, you're right. Hang on, I'll get my coat." They didn't say that not all men are saddled with a sense of entitlement that drives them to do everything from trivialize sexual assault to actually commit it. They didn't say that. They didn't tell me. They showed me.

So what does this have to do with religion? If you're not sort of seeing where I'm going, let me make it a little clearer. I don't care anymore when people say "Not all X are like that," if they're not showing me. White people can't stop being white. We're a group of people who share a privilege whether we choose it or not. Men can't choose to stop being men. They're a group of people who share a privilege whether they choose to or not. Can we really say that Christians are similarly stuck? Or can they do more to show the victims of their privilege than white people, or men?

Can more be asked of people whose privileged position is based on VOLUNTARY factors like religious affiliation? I think it can. I think if you're choosing to be part of the dominant group, then you are a different sort of animal than the people who are born with privilege printed on their skin. Religious affiliation is a choice, no matter your beliefs. Ask Jimmy Carter. Ask Anne Rice. Ask any of the other followers of Christ who finally got tired of apologizing for the cultural system they're feeding and just finally DITCHED it altogether.

It’d certainly be POSSIBLE (not probable, but possible) to redeem Christianity and reshape it into the mold of progressive thought that I know a lot of Christians would find more palatable. But if we’re going to start deliberately molding and changing the religion to fit our beliefs, why NOT start from scratch? If the tradition needs so much change for it to be workable for progressive Christians, what exactly is their attachment to it in the first place?

I know there are moderate Christians who are trying to reform its myriad sects from within. What they’re doing is good. However, they still seem to me (as an outsider) to be more attached to keeping a Christian identity than they are to creating lasting cultural change. I mean, if suppressing women and hating LGBT people isn’t a dealbreaker when it comes to associating with a certain group, then what is? Is it too much for me to ask that people stop associating with a major world religion like the RCC until its holy men are assaulting children at a rate LOWER than the rest of the population?

I acknowledge the reformers’ hard work, but I can’t see it being sufficient. Until reforming Christianity seems like a faster or more effective way to fix the broken-ass homophobic and misogynist culture that Christianity currently feeds… then I’m not going to do their PR for them and disclaim everything I say with “but I know not all churches are like this.” If them reforming their own broken and terrible organizations relies on the cooperative efforts of the people they’re hurting in order to clean up their PR… then sorry. I guess they’re screwed, and I have a hard time regretting it.

And besides. Christian organizations and churches are not going to clean up their act until they know that their members are willing and able to vote with their feet. As long as people are content to stay with the group no matter what, Christian organizations have no incentive to reform. I don’t know if there are many self-identified workers for reform who are happy to see people like Anne Rice or Jimmy Carter voting with their feet, but unless churches realize that this is a very real risk, they won’t be listening to the reformers anytime soon. Why would they?

It’s the same reason that the DNC doesn’t listen to LGBT activists and allies. They know we’ll never vote Republican, so why appease us? They’ve got us forever. It’s not until they realize that we need to be appeased that they’ll ever start to try. The difference is that in a two-party system, LGBT people have nowhere else to go. Christians who want to find less poisonous religious organizations have plenty to pick from, so there’s no excuse not to join an LGBT-friendly congregation for the people who actually care.

The author of the blog post upon which I initially commented has another entry that goes a little further than I'm currently willing to, but which still really resonates with me. It's here, entitled Moderate Religion - Two Lies in One.

Moderate Christianity is deceptively alluring because of its seemingly scientific basis. Most educated Christians have no problem admitting that there’s something to evolutionary science, and they have no problem admitting that the earth is very old, and that dinosaurs once roamed about. In fact, if you get a good Moderate Christian into a theological discussion, they will almost inevitably tell you that they believe questions are good, and that any thinking person ought to question what they believe.

Forgive me, but the devil is in the details, and they’re missing a very, very important detail. The admission that questions ought to be asked makes it seductively simple to believe that moderate Christianity is ok, and doesn’t hurt anyone. Maybe it’s even helpful in some way. The problem, and the main point of this essay, is that questioning is not ok for moderate Christians. I can prove it. Next time you’re talking to a moderate, try getting them onto the nature of god. If you’re any good at debate, you can quickly steer them to one of the half dozen paradoxes inherent in god belief. Once you get them there, note how quickly they will revert to the position, “There are some things you just have to take on faith.” If you press them into explaining why, they will get defensive. They will probably end the discussion very quickly.

The simple, indisputable fact is that any god belief requires faith, and if you follow my writings at all, you know that “faith,” properly defined, is “belief in a thing despite evidence to the contrary, or a total lack of evidence.” Once you get them to the point of admitting that they hold a belief despite it’s opposition to reason, you can see that the facade of moderation is just that – a facade. At their core, they are exactly the same as fundamentalists. They just pick a more socially acceptable irrationality. What they really mean when they say you should question everything is that you should question everything – except for the validity of faith as a means of acquiring knowledge.

I know I'm quoting a lot here, and I apologize for leaving these great huge chunks of the other entry in here. However, for the link-phobic, I want you to understand why I'm including this.
Accepting the belief that some things are true and irrational is what gives a perception of validity to every religious belief. Right wing fundamentalists are crazy. These are people who are out of touch with reality. The reason they are not either publicly ridiculed or maybe even forcibly medicated is that they are given a free pass — because it’s religion. If people believed the Jolly Green Giant was making proclamations from the side of a can of vegetables, they would be examined by a psychologist. However, when they believe an invisible man in the sky tells them to kill abortion doctors, they’re politely encouraged to be a little more moderate.

The primary reason that moderates refuse to come out publicly against fundamentalists is the vulnerability of their own position. The really smart moderates know this, and I suspect that the rest sense it even if they can’t put their finger on it. The only way to effectively call out the fundamentalists is to challenge them on rational grounds. Moderates are too intellectually dishonest, or too scared, to apply logic to all questions, lest they have to give up the precious illusion that their own personal invisible friend will make everything ok for them. So, you see, the lie in Moderate Christianity is that it is moderate at all. It is not. It is, however, to use the colloquial term, chicken shit.

I'm not yet willing to blame the value on faith for all of our culture's ills. I'll say that right now. However, I do believe that faith can only exist under the same circumstances that allow racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia to exist. It requires that certain beliefs be above and beyond question, even if the person holding them also wishes to see themselves as rational (as, I think, most people do). I don't think faith is the root cause of all this rampant magical thinking, knee-jerk self-destructive loyalty and xenophobia, or prejudice. It's just another symptom of the same cowardice, the same unwillingness to really ask oneself a single crucial question.

"I know that I like this belief. But is it true?"

People of faith are not the cause of irrationality. However, because of their own love for their own pet delusions, they do tend to enable the irrationality of others whose insanity is far more dangerous in its impact. This... this I do resent, even if the faith they treasure is not itself a threat to me. I resent the other delusions protected by our reverence for faith. Faith may not be the root of our culture's ills, but defending faith defends those roots. By making it okay to build a worldview around an unquesetionable assumption and defending vocally the virtues of doing so, they unthinkingly (or perhaps uncaringly) defend the very premise behind what they tell me and tell me and tell me they're against.

They tell me and tell me and tell me, but this is what they show me.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

More of the Gratitude Project

The Gratitude Project was begun several years ago by a LiveJournal user called estaratshirai . The rules are simple. Every day between Lammas (August 1st) and Mabon (the Autumnal Equinox) one must find something to be grateful for in life. No repeats - one can be grateful to people more than once, but it has to be for different reasons.


I am grateful to Pedialyte for making sure I don't get low on electrolytes and have a heart attack. Thanks, Pedialyte, even if you are way too slimy-feeling in my mouth somehow.


I am grateful to Filament Magazine for... existing. Hooray for a women's magazine produced by feminists with what women actually want in mind (so bite me, Cosmo, and your endlessly-repeated 100-something ways to be worthy of a man).

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Gratitude Project yet again

The Gratitude Project was begun several years ago by a LiveJournal user called estaratshirai . The rules are simple. Every day between Lammas (August 1st) and Mabon (the Autumnal Equinox) one must find something to be grateful for in life. No repeats - one can be grateful to people more than once, but it has to be for different reasons.


I'm grateful to live in a city where we can get out of a movie at midnight and just sort of go find something to do for another couple of hours.


I think it's awesome that I bought these jeans for five dollars. I'm grateful for that.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Gratitude Project again

The Gratitude Project was begun several years ago by a LiveJournal user called estaratshirai . The rules are simple. Every day between Lammas (August 1st) and Mabon (the Autumnal Equinox) one must find something to be grateful for in life. No repeats - one can be grateful to people more than once, but it has to be for different reasons.

The people at Panda Express in Bloomington who are super nice to canvassers and from whom you should buy lots of food. Seriously, those guys are so nice to us.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


The Gratitude Project was begun several years ago by a LiveJournal user called estaratshirai . The rules are simple. Every day between Lammas (August 1st) and Mabon (the Autumnal Equinox) one must find something to be grateful for in life. No repeats - one can be grateful to people more than once, but it has to be for different reasons.

Thanks to the people I meet at the door who always make sure that I leave with water (and special thanks to the awesome lady in Bloomington whose name I never learned who gave us a box of cookies and a whole sliced ice-cold watermelon when it was 100* out today).

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

That was for yesterday...

And this one is for today.

The Gratitude Project was begun several years ago by a LiveJournal user called estaratshirai . The rules are simple. Every day between Lammas (August 1st) and Mabon (the Autumnal Equinox) one must find something to be grateful for in life. No repeats - one can be grateful to people more than once, but it has to be for different reasons.


Gratitude Project

The Gratitude Project was begun several years ago by a LiveJournal user called estaratshirai . The rules are simple. Every day between Lammas (August 1st) and Mabon (the Autumnal Equinox) one must find something to be grateful for in life. No repeats - one can be grateful to people more than once, but it has to be for different reasons.

I am grateful for the people I work with, who have stuck with me while I learn some difficult new skills to cope with unpredictability and impermanence.