Oh, Uncle Richard

Richard Dawkins and Ophelia Benson made a joint statement denouncing and decrying the harassment and other bad behavior in the atheist movement.

This is a good thing. It’s good because after “Dear Muslima,” after all the asinine things Dawkins has said on Twitter and elsewhere, the dedicated antifeminist harassers have taken his comments as a sign of his tacit approval of misogyny and harassment. For him to join forces with one of the prime targets of antifeminist, anti-“FTBullies” abuse, sends an important, necessary message. All the kudos to Ophelia Benson for pursuing this, and kudos to Dawkins for recognizing that this is an important issue that required his comment and clarification.

But.

But “Dear Muslima” was three years ago, three years of non-stop abuse directed at atheist feminists, in many cases by Dawkins fanboys, in many cases by people who believed Dawkins was unambiguously on their side. It’s impossible to see this statement and not wonder why it didn’t come a lot earlier.

But Ophelia Benson had to reach out to Dawkins and apparently hold his feet to the fire a bit1 in order to get the statement made at all. This statement would hold a much greater amount of power if Dawkins had initiated it. As it is, it’s far to easy for the naysayers and harassers to say that Dawkins was bullied into this, that he’s doing it reluctantly.

But Ophelia Benson is the person who made the statement with Dawkins, and while she’s certainly been on the receiving end of tons of abuse, imagine how much more impact this would have had if Dawkins had made a joint statement with Rebecca Watson. Imagine if he had apologized for that, had expressed horror specifically at how his ill-conceived and fallacious attack had painted a target on Watson’s back. Imagine if he had finally put to rest the claims of blackballing2 and unambiguously supported Watson’s presence in the community. You’ll have to imagine, because obviously that didn’t happen.

But the statement, while clear, is still open to the same reinterpretation and spin that we saw back in the “don’t be a dick” debacle, that we see any time harassment policies arise. People who are motivated to be assholes will use motivated reasoning to justify continued assholery. Some already are dismissing this statement as Dawkins being duped, others undoubtedly will argue that what they’re doing isn’t bullying or harassment, but criticism and satire; that the FTBullies use terms that could be called “vulgar epithets” and they’re bullies (it’s right there in the name!) so it’s okay, or so Dawkins was really, slyly, calling out the FTBullies themselves and Benson was just too dumb to see it. We can reasonably guess this will happen because it’s what they’ve been saying for years now. Tu quoque and false equivalence are the air and water of the pro-harassment crowd.

But, and perhaps this is the most significant but, it doesn’t seem like Dawkins has actually learned anything. There is no admission of error in the joint statement, no acknowledgement of the seriously problematic things Dawkins has said about race or Islam or rape or molestation or abortion. And then, the very same week, he goes back to the “Dear Muslima” well, the “mild paedophilia” well, of trying to rank horrible tragedies as if their harmfulness could be measured with an SI unit, as if any positive purpose could be served by doing so, as if drawing a distinction between extremes weren’t a common tactic used to dismiss things like “mild paedophilia” and date rape. This blunder makes it unfortunately clear that Dawkins hasn’t internalized any of this, hasn’t realized that the reason people see him as an ally in their racism and misogyny and anti-Arab bigotry isn’t just because of one bonehead comment to Rebecca Watson three years ago, but because of a larger pattern of statements and behavior.

So it’s hard to see this statement as anything but a symbolic gesture. It’s a good symbolic gesture, a necessary symbolic gesture, but it’s hard not to wish it hadn’t come sooner, with a different motivation, with a clearer message, and with an indication that it represented real reflection and substantive change. Hopefully it’s a first step, and not a destination.


1. Ophelia Benson noted in the comments below that Dawkins needed convincing, not pressure, so I have corrected the account.

2. This is not to suggest that the claims of blackballing are incorrect, merely that I haven’t seen Dawkins confirm or deny them, and whether or not they have been true, denying them now would be valuable.

On Secular Arguments and Conservative Atheists

As you may have heard, David Silverman, President of American Atheists, made a splash by attending the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this past week. The publicity was done for Silverman even before he arrived, since the invitation to American Atheists was revoked after outcry by religious conservatives, resulting in the “atheists unwelcome at CPAC” story he was no doubt expecting. Done and done, right?

Not so much, since Silverman apparently went to CPAC anyway, and gave interviews. He seems to think that there’s a hidden enclave of closet atheists in the halls of conservatism, and he’s just the man to draw them out (and also, presumably, to make them dues-paying members of American Atheists).

On one hand, this shouldn’t be a surprise. American Atheists’ outreach under Silverman has been focused not on convincing people of the atheist position, but on convincing people who are atheist-but-closeted to come out and be public with their disbelief. It’s a laudable goal.

Silverman’s also been vocal about making atheism a big tent, and less willing, on that front, to explicitly exclude some of the more hostile wings of the atheist movement. To Dave, as long as we’re all agreed that religion is generally wrong and bad, we’re all working together (or at least, we’re all willing to donate to American Atheists so they can accomplish tasks that we generally agree are important).
Silverman identifies himself as a conservative:

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.

And he’s got some particular ideas about what conservatism is and means, and how conservatism and atheism can be compatible:

“I came with the message that Christianity and conservatism are not inextricably linked,” he told me, “and that social conservatives are holding down the real conservatives — social conservatism isn’t real conservatism, it’s actually big government, it’s theocracy. I’m talking about gay rights, right to die, abortion rights –”
[…]
“I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion,” said Silverman. “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.”

And looking at all that really makes me want to donate to American Atheists, so that maybe they’ll have enough money to buy Dave a clue.

Let’s start with the “secular argument[s] against abortion.” When I first saw that quote, my response was incredulity. What are these secular arguments for abortion? The ones I could remember hearing were really just the usual religious pro-lifers’ arguments, but with “human DNA” or some other such nonsense copy-pasted where a Catholic might say “soul.” They were as “secular” as Intelligent Design.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that most of the arguments I’ve heard from anti-abortion activists have been secular in nature. I was conflating “secular argument against abortion” with “argument against abortion from a secularist.” Sure, there are all the appeals to Mother Teresa and the Pope and that bit of the Bible where God says he knew you before he formed you in the womb, but once you get past that, it’s mostly nonreligious reasons. Those big signs of misleadingly dismembered fetuses aren’t making any kind of religious argument; that “Abortion stops a beating heart” bumper sticker isn’t making a religious argument, “If she wanted to have sex she should accept the consequences” isn’t a religious argument; “just because the father was a rapist is no reason to punish the child” is not only not a religious argument, but it flies in the face of the whole “sins of the father” notion that’s central (in one form or another) to most Christian denominations. Most of the arguments fall into one of those categories: “ewww, icky,” “it’s murder,” “sluts need to learn a lesson,” or “it’s a person!”

The problems there, then, are twofold: one, those arguments are crap, and two, the vast majority of atheists would agree about their crappiness. Now, recruiting some folks from CPAC into American Atheists might skew those numbers a bit, but the movement as it stands now isn’t exactly welcoming to the notion that abortion is some terrible wrong (and for good reason). Saying “there are secular argument[s] against abortion” and then suggesting that those arguments are better than the secular arguments opposing school prayer or supporting right-to-die and gay marriage1, is at best profoundly misleading.

It is, as I argued elsewhere, exactly the same kind of disingenuous misleading that accommodationist skeptics and the NCSE have engaged in with respect to science and religion. They’ll say “skepticism and religion are compatible,” or “you can be a Christian and still believe in evolution,” but both of those statements are misleading to the point of being insulting. The kinds of religion that are compatible with skepticism are either the ones that are so abstracted into deism or pantheism that they hardly resemble “religions” in any sensible use of the term, or the ones that are almost completely compartmentalized from skeptical criticism. The kinds of Christianity that are compatible with evolution are the ones that are so withdrawn into metaphor that they can square a loving and merciful god with a system of biology where progress is primarily driven by death, and that can accept a savior dying to remove a sin committed by people who never existed.

Similarly, the kinds of conservatism that are compatible with atheism are the ones which reject the social conservative platforms (except ones they can support through bad secular arguments), reject the religious right, and are mostly concerned with fiscal responsibility and personal freedoms (except the freedom of women to control their own bodies, because chicks amirite?). In other words, libertarians. Atheism and libertarianism are compatible? Color me shocked.

The thing is, if Dave Silverman wanted to find those fiscally-conservative-but-socially-liberal(ish) conservative atheists, it seems like CPAC isn’t the place to do it. Sure, they’ll put Rand Paul up on stage, but the rest of the time? This year’s program featured presentations like “Fossil Fuels Improve the Planet,” “Inventing Freedom: How English-Speaking Peoples Made the World Modern,” “More Guns, Less Crime,” and “Healthcare After Obamacare: A Practical Guide for Living When No One Has Insurance and America Runs Out of Doctors”2. Speakers included religious ideologues like pro-school prayer Jim DeMint, anti-gay Ben Carson, and creationist-if-the-money-is-right Ann Coulter. And Michele Bachmann and Ted Cruz, of course. This isn’t a libertarian convention full of Eisenhower Republicans outlining reasonable positions to maximize personal freedom and minimize government spending. It’s a convention of rich ideologues who want to be richer, even and especially if it means gutting programs that help the poor. And also, let’s go to war with anyone and everyone3.

Dave Silverman thinks that there are lots of closet conservative atheists, but he’s engaging in a bit of equivocation there. Dave Silverman’s definition of “conservative”–fiscal conservatism, gun rights, personal freedom, supporting military–is not the definition being employed by the first “C” in “CPAC.” CPAC skews more toward the social conservative theocracy that Silverman No-True-Scotsman’d as not real conservatism.

Which kind of brings us to that particular brand of Silverman cluelessness: where has he been for the last thirty years? How does he square his belief in “economic conservatism” with a party that started two off-the-books wars, wants to start more with Iran and Russia, and has wasted millions of taxpayer dollars on meaningless votes to repeal Obamacare, countless anti-abortion bills, and fighting gay marriage? Where is the economic conservatism there? Where is the military support in opposing bills to prosecute rapists in the ranks, or fighting against benefits for veterans? How much personal freedom does a person have when they’re working two jobs and still living below the povery line? When their food stamps benefits get cut over and over because the social safety net, and not corporate welfare, is a drain on the country’s resources? When their right to vote is eroded by classist, racist regulations designed to keep Republicans in office?

We either have to believe that Silverman is so blinkered in his politics that he’s bought into a series of mostly meaningless, mostly traditional buzzwords that the GOP likes to throw around as their platform because they sound better than “consistently trying to screw over 99% of the country,” or we have to believe that he’s a savvy, selfish asshole who thinks his right to own as many guns as he wants and his distaste for taxes trumps other people’s right to a living wage and personal security.

The more I try to think he’s one or the other, the more unconvinced I am by either option. The latter suggests that maybe he’s decided that going after rich donors in the bush is worth alienating the women and minorities already in the hands of American Atheists, but if that’s the case, then surely he recognizes that those donors aren’t both going to take the PR hit of associating with atheists and relinquish the control mechanism provided by fundamentalist religion. But if he really believes that “real conservatives” would support atheist causes, why make the appeal to anti-abortion arguments, which is a socially conservative issue?

The fact that it came as news to Silverman that there are anti-gay atheists makes me think he’s probably just profoundly out of touch. He doesn’t have clue one about most political issues that don’t directly affect him, and he doesn’t understand that by actively courting a group that promotes racist, misogynist, classist, homophobic, transphobic, and xenophobic policies, he’s going to alienate a lot of people who otherwise agree with him. Unless those racist misogynist homophobes are bringing tons of money to the anti-religion organization, then he’d probably be better served by trying to make the movement more welcoming to the people who are actually in it. Pandering to assholes while ignoring the complaints of members makes it look like your priorities are less in fostering community among atheists and more in gaining donations for your organization.

The organization should serve the members, not the other way around.


1. They’re really not, by the way. There are lots of people who argue that government shouldn’t be in the marriage business anyway, and that government shouldn’t be expanding, but reducing, its participation in private relationships. You could argue for school prayer on free speech grounds, or point to the fact that there’s no sharp line between “prayer” and other moment-of-silence type activities, or that there’s not always a clear distinction between student-led and staff-led activities, and that school prayer should be subject to the same equal-time principle as religious displays on public land, or interfaith ceremonial prayers at the beginning of public meetings. Frankly, I don’t see how you can assert bodily rights to make a pro-right-to-die argument and reject them when it comes to abortion. Are these arguments good? No, but they’re no worse than the secular arguments against abortion–and in the right-to-die case, they’re essentially the same. Except, you know, men get terminal illnesses too.

2. In case it’s not clear, let me outline briefly the problems that the generally science- and fact-friendly atheist community might have with these presentations. 1) Not according to all climate science; 2) Historians are likely to disagree, and even if true, it happened on the back of slavery and genocide; 3) Not according to all the evidence from the rest of the world; 4) How will an insurance mandate result in fewer people having insurance, and where are doctors going to go to find a more conservative healthcare system?

3. The one exception to all this seems to be that the attendance at CPAC leans more personal-freedom-libertarian than the leadership and speakership, based on the polling results that CPAC has on their main page. But given the stark contrast between what those people cite as priorities (drug decriminalization, isolationism) and what the party’s actual priorities are (attacking abortion, starting wars wherever possible), they look an awful lot like useful idiots, prized by party establishment for their votes and their unwillingness to take said votes to any particular third party, despite not being served by this one. But then, getting people to vote against their own interests has been the GOP platform for decades.

Some recent searches

I haven’t been keeping close track, but this bunch from the last couple of weeks seemed pretty postworthy.

  • Lots of people searching for variants on “rick warren colbert” and “atheist fundamentalist”. In short: Rick’s the doofus, and he keeps using that word, but I do not think it means what he thinks it means.
  • “Anything Involving harps” requests a reader from Finland. I prefer anything involving harp seals.
  • “how can human eye be redesigned to get rid of blind spot” Put the retina up front, don’t run vessels through it.
  • “fear of vacuum cleaners” Ah, Hooverphobia. Bane of dogs everywhere.
  • A Romanian reader wants “video fred zugibe”. Ask, and it is given:

  • An Iowa reader needs a “great bible verse for grandpa’s funeral”. The cynic in me wants to recommend something like Malachi 2:3, but hey, I know how hard it is listening to shitty eulogies for people you love. Stay away from Psalm 23, and if you’re going to use Ecclesiastes, do it sparingly, and don’t fall into the usual “a time to live, a time to die” stuff. There’s more to the book than the first ten verses of chapter 3, for instance:
    1:4-7 “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever
    The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
    The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
    All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.”
    8:15 “Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun.”
    9:11-12 “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
    For man also knoweth not his time: as the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them.”

    There’s some decent stuff in Proberbs 13, and here:

    31:6-7 “Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts.
    Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.

    And I’ve always liked this bit from the Sermon on the Mount. It’s terrible advice for the real world, but it’s a nice metaphor if you believe in a pleasant afterlife.

    Matthew 6:28-34 “And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:
    And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
    Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?
    Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?
    (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.
    But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.
    Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

    My condolences.

  • “sex education position movie” It will be a fantastic day when sex education includes instruction on positions.
  • I’ve gotten a few searches for variations on “a person is a person no matter how small t shirts” and even an “Augustana Right to Life” from my alma mater. To the former: Dr. Seuss was pro-abortion rights, and anti-abortion folks really ought to stop using his words to support a position he disagreed vehemently with. “Horton Hears a Who” was about the atomic bomb–you know, a threat to actual factual full-grown people, as opposed to your precious “potential humans.” To the person searching about ARTL: they’re a sad group of people with no debate skills and even less science knowledge. If you’re affiliated with them, I pity you.
  • “martin luther king go forth and multiply” Um, I’m afraid he can neither hear your request nor follow through with it.
  • “do not mourn for me” The first thing I thought of when I saw that was the Shakespeare Sonnet it’s loosely quoting. The second was this:
    http://video.google.com/googleplayer.swf?docId=-7935763140816467759&hl=en

Also, much as I like Debbyo, I’m a little disappointed at the response to my meme post. Once the weekend’s over, I might be forced to start tagging people…

Classic Tom: Abstain from incomplete sex education

Look at all that hair!Originally published in the Augustana Observer, vol. 104, issue #12, January 28, 2005
I thought I’d talk about abortion this week, due to the recent debate, Augustana Right to Life’s screening of “The Silent Scream” and the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. That, and I haven’t gotten enough letters about being controversial lately, and I was beginning to miss them.
I recently realized that, for all I know about philosophy and fetal development, I really didn’t know how an abortion was actually performed. I watched “The Silent Scream,” but I’m not foolish enough to think that many medical practices are the same now as they were in the mid-’80s. Besides, Planned Parenthood debunked that film (link). I recognize their bias, but their facts check out better than the movie’s do.
Planned Parenthood should know about abortion procedure, especially if the anti-abortion groups’ “4,000 per day” figure is accurate. ARTL really needs to find a more up-to-date movie. If their position is really based on logical philosophy and not religion, then they should be able to support it with a film that’s not so obsolete and sensationalistic.
But I’m not talking about abortion. I’m talking about gambling. Sort of.
Imagine that someone gave you more money than you know what to do with. They dropped you off in the biggest, brightest casino in Las Vegas and told you some of the basic rules of the games. Then they told you “okay, now don’t play anything,” and left. What do you do?
Most of you would play, and most of you would lose.
That, boys and girls, is abstinence-only sex education.
It’s clear that Sex-Ed in this country needs an overhaul, but that’s not the right direction. Adolescents have sex, whether or not it’s a good idea. People who know the ins and outs of sex (pun very much intended) will be a great deal safer regarding diseases, contraceptives, and even what to do in the bedroom than people who are firing blindly.
Abstinence-only sex education mixes a tiny amount of factual information with an almost equal amount of misinformation.
Touching your genitals can get you pregnant? HIV is spread by tears?
Educated people should not consider “abortion increases one’s risk for breast cancer” to be a remotely rational statement. Honestly, if it were ovarian cancer or uterine cancer it might seem plausible, but it doesn’t take a doctor to see how little sense that makes.
The other problems with abstinence-only sex-ed are the parts it ignores. Adolescents are in the process of developing individual adult identities. This means making their own decisions, and thus their own mistakes.
Part of teenage rebellion is doing what your parents don’t want you to, because it means you’re making a decision on your own.
Telling teens “don’t do that because I said so, and I know what’s best” only encourages them to try it. Telling them “I don’t think you should, and here’s why, but I’ll leave the actual decision up to you” forces them to make choices that will have serious impacts on their lives (you know, like adults do).
All that aside, what happens to the abstinence-only kids when they grow up? Chances are, unless they become clergy or eunuchs, everyone will have sex at some point. Putting on a wedding ring doesn’t magically teach you how to do the deed, and if you’ve engaged in total abstinence, there’ll be quite a few surprises on the honeymoon.
If there’s a woman with an instruction manual on her vulva, I have yet to meet her. Teaching teens about sex will make sure that more people will have a decent time on their wedding night.
Teaching teens about the dangers of intercourse and about how contraceptives can protect them will only help everyone in the long run. You can still push abstinence, but far more people will stay chaste if it’s their own decision, rather than what grown-ups told them to do.
Teens who only know abstinence are like gun owners who don’t know how to aim. If they decide to fire, they will be a lot more dangerous. Without education, a condom is just a fancy rubber band. But with a little knowledge and some spermicide, it becomes a 98 percent effective tadpole catcher.
So wait, education plus contraceptives equals fewer unwanted pregnancies, which equals fewer abortions. Hmmm…seems to me that, if ARTL really wanted to stop abortions, they’d stop sending anti-birth control bookmarks and “Condom Sense” pamphlets, and start distributing condoms and real information.
It looks like there is less logic and less reason in the Right to Life philosophy than meets the eye.