Michael Nugent, Vice Principal of Atheism

You may remember Michael Nugent from such hits as the time he rolled up his sleeves and dredged the Slyme Pit to no real effect (except ultimately to fill his comment threads with Pitter apologia) and that time he tried to mediate a dialogue between harassed and harasser, until he lost interest.

In that latter incident, Nugent demonstrated a pattern of behavior that he has since escalated: butt in to an issue that doesn’t involve you, adopt the pretense of mature authority, treat the issue as an academic subject to be studied or hashed out in formal debate, and then move on to some other issue once it gets too real.

This time, he’s decided that he’s very disappointed in PZ Myers. That’s his takeaway from this mostly good article about the Michael Shermer rape allegations and a couple of weeks where prominent atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have taken to Twitter and other avenues to make (and double-down on) sexist, essentialist comments about women, ignorantly pontificate about rape (and implicitly defend accused rapists), and whine to their millions of followers about being persecuted by PC thought-police bullies: PZ Myers is a meanie.

It’s certainly not the only point of that article; there’s a rambling bit where he talks about the good work done by atheist organizations, and tries to paint these issues of sexism and misogyny and rape apology as strictly American ones, despite the fact that Richard Dawkins is most decidedly from a different country with “United” in the name.

But PZ is the real problem. His rhetoric has escalated the “deep rifts.” Because while Penn Jillette is alternately defending and denying his use of gendered slurs, and while Richard Dawkins is defending his friend from rape accusations, they’re doing it without resulting to four-letter words. Accusing someone of rape? Rude. Actually raping someone? Not even worth comment.

He tried talking to PZ “privately” about the matter first, considering PZ a friend, and apparently seeing the need for an intervention about his destructive behavior. I can sympathize, somewhat. After all, I am all for people calling out their friends when their friends are hurting others. For that matter, I think that’s a situation where a private conversation may indeed be warranted before taking the issue public, a tactic often problematically proposed as a cure-all for disagreements. It’s not, and when it’s two people who don’t actually know each other very well, the insistence on private conversation first is mostly just a way of avoiding transparency and sweeping criticism under the carpet. But if it’s someone you’re close to? Sending them a personal note to say “hey, I think [specific thing you do] is hurting the people you care about, and I’m worried about you” would absolutely be a reasonable step in resolving the issue.

That’s not what Nugent did. Instead, he CC’d Richard Dawkins and Ophelia Benson on the e-mail. Again, I think Nugent thought he was trying to organize an intervention, but that’s really not how you go about it. An intervention means a bunch of people who care about you plan on their own to get together and confront you about your actions. It’s not sending “a letter to a person who I considered to be a friend who I thought was behaving badly” and also sending that same letter to two people who are, at best, tangentially involved, one of whom is the target of some of that perceived bad behavior. That’s not staging an intervention. That is, as I said in comments at Stephanie Zvan’s place, holding a parent-teacher conference. “I’m concerned about your behavior, so I’m sending this to your parents as well.”

Similarly, if I had a friend who was saying hurtful things, I probably wouldn’t say:

I am now asking you to take a long hard look at what you are doing, consider apologising to people who you have unjustly hurt and defamed, and start focusing on actually promoting compassion and empathy and social justice if those ideas are important to you.

That’s not how friends and peers talk to each other. That’s how you scold a child. “Now go and think about what you did, and don’t come back down until you’ve said you’re sorry.” Nugent was accused, rightly so, of behaving paternalistically with the dialogue a year ago, and this turns that up to 11. He has appointed himself disciplinarian of atheism, and what actions merit his attention?

In the last year or so, he has publicly accused Richard Dawkins of seeming to have developed a callous indifference to the sexual abuse of children, Michael Shermer of multiple unreported serious crimes, and Russell Blackford of being a lying fuckhead. He has joked about Rebecca Watson shanking Phil Mason in the kidneys, and about himself stabbing Christians and throwing people off a pier.

Last month he described Robin Williams’ suicide as the death of a wealthy white man dragging us away from news about brown people, said that a white lady who made racist comments looks like the kind of person who would have laughed at nanu-nanu, then added that he should have been more rude, because asking him to have been nicer about the dead famous guy is missing the point.

Let’s address those in order:

he has publicly accused Richard Dawkins of seeming to have developed a callous indifference to the sexual abuse of children

PZ was hardly the only one. In fact, lots of the people who levied that accusation were people who were sexually abused as children and found Dawkins’ repeated comments about sexual abuse trivializing and insensitive at best. Dawkins was attempting to generalize his own experience with “mild” sexual abuse to all or most sexual abuse victims, as a tool to attack what he saw as the greater abuse, religious indoctrination. This was inappropriate, and Dawkins later apologized for it, though I doubt that he still quite gets what was wrong. He seems fixated these last few years with ranking tragedies and atrocities, for no discernible practical purpose.

But Michael Nugent apparently sees no problem with Dawkins devising scales of rape and sexual abuse so as to compare people’s traumatic experiences. We have not, after all, seen him post letters telling Dawkins to think about the harm he’s caused or apologize to those he’s hurt with his words.

Michael Shermer of multiple unreported serious crimes,

Accusations that have been validated by multiple sources. Nugent has said that he was not trying to tell PZ to keep sexual harassment accusations secret, but it’s hard to read this (and the letter, which is worded in nearly identical language) as anything but that. On Twitter, Nugent expanded, essentially saying that he thought this matter would have been better served by the police than hashed out online. We’ll ignore the continued ignorant paternalism in Nugent thinking he knows better how to handle rape than the victim, we’ll even ignore the numerous clear reasons why rape survivors don’t go to the police. Nugent’s living in a fantasy world of privilege-enabled ignorance where police officers are never racist or misogynist or themselves rapists, and where every rape kit gets tested and victims are never pressured into recanting or (even with clear evidence that rape occurred) treated like criminals themselves. But look at what we know, especially in light of the Buzzfeed piece: Shermer’s behavior and the accusations were known to atheist and skeptic leaders. DJ Grothe knew about them. James fucking Randi knew about them, tanking the remaining respect I had for that guy. What was their response? To continue inviting him to events, to take out extra insurance to protect themselves from his actions, and to give him a stern warning that if he does it too many more times, he might face some consequences of some sort, while punishing the people who speak out. The same thing played out with Ben Radford. Leaders in the community excuse and coddle accused rapists and harassers, and punish victims. Why should Shermer’s victim have expected anything different to happen if the police were the authorities involved rather than the event organizers?

But Michael Nugent apparently sees no problem with Shermer treating conferences as date rape meat markets, or of engaging in unwanted sexual banter and actions with nonconsenting people. He apparently sees no problem with event organizers continuing to invite people to be prominent speakers at events, even after having credible evidence that they are sexual harassers or worse. He apparently sees no problem with blacklisting Pamela Gay or Karen Stollznow for daring to speak out about their experiences. We have not, after all, seen him post letters telling Michael Shermer or DJ Grothe or Ben Radford to think about the harm they’ve caused or apologize to those hurt by their actions.

Russell Blackford of being a lying fuckhead

So what? For context, here are the two tweets in question, where PZ is talking about Blackford’s repeated use of the dishonest “witch hunt” accusation, which is used by FtB opponents to justify harassment despite having no actual basis in reality. It is a lie. Someone who says it is lying. Incidentally, in searching, it’s clear which of the FtB opponents Nugent is receiving (dishonest) talking points from.

So what is so unconscionably rude about calling someone “lying” when they are, in fact, lying? Is it the “fuckhead” part? Does Nugent truly look at someone who is spreading misinformation that they know emboldens and encourages and justifies harassment–harassment that Nugent has acknowledged is a problem and has worked, however incompetently, to stop–and someone who uses a naughty insult, and sees the latter as the greater sin?

But Michael Nugent apparently sees no problem with lying and harassment anymore. There hasn’t been a post on the “dialogue” in over a year, and he hasn’t posted any recent letters to Blackford or others to encourage them to stop spreading damaging misinformation and making hyperbolic accusations of “witch hunts” and lynch mobs and inquisitions and thought policing and feeding frenzies and rage blogging and drumming up outrage for money. In fact, publishing these letters when he has, given who he’s defending within them, it seems that Nugent has endorsed precisely that behavior. Hyperbolic dishonesty is okay, giving support to harassers is okay, it’s naughty language that escalates and exacerbates rifts between people.

He has joked about Rebecca Watson shanking Phil Mason in the kidneys, and about himself stabbing Christians and throwing people off a pier.

Nugent does not deign to give context for these things, so I will. On Watson and kidney-shanking:

Coming off of SomeGreyBloke’s brutal savaging of Thunderf00t’s logic, now Rebecca Watson shanks him in the kidneys and mocks him cruelly. Trigger warning for sad ex-paragon of anti-creationism being publicly exposed as a moral cretin.

It’s a metaphor using violent language. I’m afraid I can’t get myself too worked up about it, any more than I could if he’d used a more clichéd variation, like “now Rebecca Watson rakes him across the coals” or “now Rebecca Watson holds his feet to the fire” or “now Rebecca Watson puts the last nail in his coffin.” I wonder how long it would take me to look through Nugent’s writing for similar use of metaphorical phrases that come out of war and torture and violence. Perhaps next time I need an insomnia cure, I’ll go looking.

On stabbing Christians:

He [Kevin Sorbo’s character in “God’s Not Dead”] is crossing a street when he’s hit by a car and killed.

Not right away, though. He’s hit right in front of a car containing two missionaries, who get out and run to his ‘assistance’. Somehow, they are sufficiently knowledgeable about medicine to be able to tell that he’s going to die, and only has a few minutes left to live. So, with smiles on their faces, they tell him he’s going to be facing God in heaven in a few minutes, and that he must accept Jesus into his heart. It was my nightmare, that the last, brief, passing moment of life is spent with smug stupid assholes quoting Bible verses and pressuring the dying to affirm their superstitions, which is obviously the most important thing he could do.

See, projection. I just wish whoever made this film could imagine lying on their deathbed, when an atheist barges in and starts yelling that they are about to cease to exist, and there will be nothing forever, and slaps them a few times ordering them to reject God right now. That’s not going to happen, but of course all they can do is project their authoritarian proselytizing impulse on other. And of course, since this is the Christian straw universe, our atheist professor accepts Jesus with his dying breath.

After which, the two smiling missionaries tell each other that they have “cause to celebrate”. A man just died. They want to celebrate. They’re going to Disneyland!

Fuck me. All I felt was hatred. That was despicable.

I’ve got to start carrying a knife now. Just so all you Christians know, if I’m in a fatal accident, and I’m lying in the street dying, and you’re not running over to stop the bleeding or otherwise physically help me, and you try to pull that prayer-and-conversion shit on me, I’m going to stab you. I’ll have nothing to lose, and you sure as hell don’t deserve to continue living. I don’t like violence, but I will make an exception for this one possible circumstance.

Now I know a lot of Christians aren’t like that, and that there are many who are also appalled at this wretched excuse for a movie. You can have another reason for disliking it: it has hardened the heart of an atheist even further against your religion.

Christianity is barbarism, evil, and gibbering insanity. Thanks, God’s Not Dead. When your religion is extinct, then I’ll have cause to celebrate.

Not exactly a joke, I don’t think. A statement of outrage, at seeing a vile, stereotypical portrayal of atheists straight out of a Chick tract in a movie that was more popular than it had any right to be, but not a joke. Again, I have a hard time getting worked up over this, just as I’d have a hard time getting worked up over a Jewish person expressing similar disgust at seeing the end of “The Merchant of Venice”–with Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity–played straight and comedically. Just as I’d have a hard time getting worked up over an African-American person expressing similar disgust over the video games and comments and Reddit boards that have popped up in the wakes of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown’s deaths. When we see people cheer on negative stereotypes of ourselves, when we see ourselves, however distorted, made into caricatures and used as punchlines and cautionary tales, it rightfully stirs anger in us. Perhaps, and I’m going out on a limb here, perhaps the problem is casual bigotry and not the language people use to shock people into realizing how damaging and demoralizing and disgusting that bigotry is.

But Michael Nugent apparently sees no problem with popular movies that present bigoted caricatures of atheists. We don’t see him writing letters to Kevin Sorbo or the producers of “God’s Not Dead” to say that their film was counterproductive to the promotion of “compassion, empathy, fairness, justice, equality and respect for people.” No, Nugent believes atheists should be “tackling sexism, racism, homophobia and other discriminatory biases in society,” he just doesn’t think they should do it too loudly or angrily, lest they upset someone. Violent rhetoric in response to bigotry? Rude. Promoting “discriminatory biases” by acting out a violent fantasy against a bigoted caricature in a mass-market motion picture? Doesn’t even merit a comment.

Finally, the Robin Williams thing. I thought PZ was wrong to be so callous about the death of a celebrity, and I think Williams’ death gave many people the impetus to start important conversations about depression, suicide, mental health, and the like. But I also understood where PZ was coming from. The media often seems to need to be forced to cover issues of injustice against marginalized groups, and we saw the news out of Ferguson develop on Twitter long before any news station picked it up. And where are we today? There are still ongoing protests in Ferguson, and there’s increasing evidence of corruption, cronyism, and cover-up among the people who are supposed to be upholding justice in the case. You wouldn’t know it to look at the news. There’s not one mention of Ferguson or Mike Brown on the front pages of MSNBC or CNN right now. You have to scroll halfway down the page before you see mention of it even on the local St. Louis Post-Dispatch page. PZ has rightly identified one of the most negative defining features of modern media: that they have no attention span, especially on stories about race or gender or injustice. We were lucky, in this case, that the story was big enough–unignorable enough–that the media had to return to it after spending a day or two on Robin Williams retrospectives. But PZ rightly identified a trend in media, that they move from hot story to hot story without any thought to depth or continuing coverage.

Did he phrase it callously? Was he rude to people who were influenced by Williams and enjoyed his work on deep, personal levels? Did his dismiss and diminish their experiences and assume that his own mild interest in Williams was, perhaps, more universal than it actually was? Probably.

But I have a hard time getting as worked up about that as I do over Richard Dawkins doing something similar to victims of sexual abuse and rape.

Michael Nugent doesn’t. Say some rude things about the media, and about the way people respond to the death of a beloved celebrity, and Nugent will be very disappointed and say so repeatedly to whomever will listen. Say some rude things about how victims of rape and sexual abuse should feel about and respond to and react to and report their experiences? Not even worth mentioning.

Michael Nugent, no one has elected you Atheist Disciplinarian. Ireland and the UK are not above or beyond sexism and misogyny and rape culture. You may dislike PZ Myers’ methods, but to single him out while defending and minimizing rape, harassment, sexism, and the like, is far, far more counterproductive to atheism than occasionally calling people “fuckhead.” There’s no well-researched news article about how using naughty words is likely to bring down the atheist movement.

Perhaps, sir, you need to go to your room and think about what you’ve said–and more specifically, what you’ve chosen not to say, and what statement is made by your silence.

Virtual Skeptics video on the Block Bot (Transcript) EDIT: No more transcript

So, Tim Farley spammed a few posts here with links to a Virtual Skeptics Google Hangout video, where he did some following up on his controversial Block Bot post. I think YouTube videos, and panel videos especially, are a pretty terrible way to make any kind of response to something that wasn’t, you know, a video to begin with, but whatever. I wanted to make sure I was responding to things that Farley actually said, so I made a transcript of the relevant portions of the video. If Farley or the Virtual Skeptics want this transcript removed, I will happily do so upon request, and mostly I’m putting it here for easy reference for the post that I’ll be writing about it within the next few days. The relevant portion of the video goes from time 34:28 to about 54:00, and the video is embedded below the fold.

[Transcript removed per request]

That’s Strange

Huh. Looks like an old adversary is blogging again.

Turn it Around

One common refrain in the gun conversation (such as it is) is that if someone wants to kill people, they’ll find a way, guns or no guns. Now, I’ve talked already about part of why this is ridiculous–namely, that guns make it way easier to kill people than most things (see the recent knife attack in China for proof of that: 22 injured, none killed)–and there are plenty of other reasons as well. It’s a weird combination of a perfectionist fallacy and slippery slope, for instance.

But the weird thing is how they never apply it to their other arguments, namely the one that says more guns would prevent this kind of incident.

When people advocate gun control, shooters become these industrious madmen, bent on killing, and willing (and able) to do it by any means. Guns are illegal or hard to get? They’ll find a way, the crafty devils. Maybe they’ll get guns off the black market, or maybe they’ll make bombs using common equipment, or maybe they’ll resort to a knife or a fork or a pencil, but by gum, they’ll find a way!

Their one weakness, apparently, is the presence of armed civilians. See, when the premise becomes arming everyone, these gunmen suddenly become super-rational actors, who can and will always weigh the costs and benefits of their actions. “One of my targets may be armed,” they think. “If that’s the case, they may shoot back and I will get hurt. I’d better not go on a killing spree today, it wouldn’t be safe for me.”

But why not turn the argument around? Arm everyone, fine. These guys aren’t dumb, they’ll find a way to kill people anyway! Maybe they’ll dress up in body armor or use tear gas or smoke bombs to prevent other people from shooting back! Gosh, why does that sound so familiar?

See, here’s the thing: either the shooters are perfectly rational beings who will reasonably weigh the risks and consequences of going on a shooting spree (in which case they’ll prepare for those risks, like the Aurora shooter did) or they’re people who want to kill no matter what and will find a way (in which case armed targets won’t be a deterrent).

Or, as is more likely, some shooters belong to each camp, and others don’t belong to either.

But one thing we do see with these spree killers and mass murderers is that they’re not usually real concerned with their own safety or mortality. Many of these things end in suicide, or at least the death of the perpetrator. The ones that don’t? They take precautions to limit how much their targets can fight back, and how much damage they could do.

This idea that concealed carry or open carry is some kind of deterrent–especially to these would-be mass murderers–is as much a myth as that of the person who could’ve stopped it if only they’d been armed. And it’s perpetuation in our culture and the halls of power is only going to result in more dead kids and more dead adults until we recognize the correlation between stricter gun control laws and fewer gun-related deaths, the way that every other damn civilized country has.

Point and Click

I recently purchased an iPad Mini, and put some e-reading apps on it. With 1-click purchasing enabled on Amazon, I’ve found that it’s really easy to make an accidental, unintended purchase. Accidentally touch “Buy Now with 1-click” instead of “Add to Wish List” or “Send Sample Now,” and you’re either stuck with something you might not actually want, or you have to go through the cumbersome refund process.

It’s true that I could still make that purchase if there were more obstacles in my way, but it’d be considerably more difficult to make it without putting some serious thought into it, or doing it accidentally.

But whenever gun violence erupts like it did yesterday (and too many other times this year) and sensible people talk about gun control, about putting the “well-regulated” back into our conversation about the 2nd Amendment, we hear the same chorus of responses to the notion: “why not ban cars or forks or some other ridiculous thing? You could kill people with those too! If a person is determined to kill people, they’re going to find a way!”

So, apparently, we should make it as easy for them as possible?

Look, it’s true. If someone is determined to commit murder, they will find a way. But guns, especially assault rifles or automatic weapons or high-capacity magazines, are one-click killing. The ease with which they cause death make it ridiculously easy to kill accidentally, to kill in large quantities, to kill without putting a lot of thought into it.

You’re not going to kill someone with a fork or a pencil or something ridiculous like that without putting a good deal of thought and effort into it, and you’re certainly not going to be able to kill ten or twenty people that way in half an hour. You want to kill 20 people with a knife? You become a serial killer and do it over the span of years. You don’t get to saunter into a school or temple or movie theater and do it indiscriminately and quickly.

Even with a car, it’s hard to cause a lot of death as quickly and easily as it is with a gun. You can’t conceal a car. You can’t bring a car into a building. When a car is coming for you, there’s some warning.

The car is not the preferred weapon of people trying to commit mass murder. That’s not a coincidence, it’s by design.

It’s true that people who want to commit mass murder will find a way. But when you buy lots of fertilizer, you end up on watch lists. When you buy lots of cold medicine, your license is flagged. There’s a reinforced door between you and the pilot of an airplane. When people want to kill in those ways, we recognize the need to put obstacles in the way, to make people have to carefully plan their murderous activities over longer spans of time, to alert authorities to potentially dangerous activities.

Why on Earth does that reasonable impulse disappear when the topic is guns?

What’s atheism got to do with it?

For most possible values of “it,” nothing.

I got into a Twitter argument with Somite yesterday after he cited a trio of old/dead white cisgendered anglophone men as a reason that Atheism+ might be unnecessary. The conversation went in a few different directions, but kept coming around to Somite saying various things were “unrelated to atheism.”

And he’s right. Atheism–dictionary atheism, anyway–is a single position with respect to a single claim. The claim is “god exists;” the position is “I don’t accept that.”

And that’s it.

Now, I happen to think that said position is the one that people would arrive at necessarily if applying skeptical and scientific methods to the god-existence claim. But it’s trivially obvious that that’s not the only path to atheism. Some people arrive at that position through wholly irrational processes, like the Raelians. There’s nothing inherent in atheism that implies rationality or skepticism. There’s nothing about atheism that implies an appreciation of science–just look at Bill Maher. There’s nothing about atheism that implies a rejection of other supernatural beliefs and claims; the most recent Atheist Experience episode had a secular reincarnationist, for instance. There’s nothing about atheism that suggests that one should argue with religious believers or try to deconvert religionists. There’s nothing about atheism that says an atheist should be out and vocal about it. There’s nothing about atheism that implies the necessity to fight for free speech and religious freedom, or to try to dismantle religious privilege. Nothing about atheism suggested supporting Damon Fowler or Jessica Ahlquist. Nothing about atheism suggests the need for something like the Out Campaign or the Clergy Project. There’s nothing about atheism that implies any course of action–it’s why the whole “Stalin’s atrocities were motivated by his atheism” argument falls apart so easily. Atheism is a single position on a single claim, it gives no instruction, implies no values.

So, yes, there’s very little that’s actually “related to atheism.” And yet, The God Delusion is a pretty sizable book. And it’s certainly not the only book about atheism on the market. I suspect that there’s more to George H. Smith’s Atheism than just 355 pages of “I don’t believe in gods.” But how? How is any of that content related to atheism?

The answer is that atheism as a movement has never been just about atheism. Movement atheism has been composed primarily of people with similar values and positions on a number of topics. Movement atheism has been largely pro-science, skeptical, pro-religious freedom, pro-free speech, and anti-religion. Movement atheism has typically valued education to the point of fighting for proper science education and against religious encroachments into secular classrooms. Movement atheism has typically valued atheists as people, and fought against tyrannical anti-blasphemy laws and repressive theocracies, for the benefit of atheists under those kinds of oppression. Movement atheism has been concerned with dismantling religious privilege so that questioning religion and coming out as atheist is more acceptable in heavily religious cultures, and providing a framework and support network for atheists who face discrimination or other obstacles as they go public. Movement atheism has always been a group of people who share certain values working to promote those values, and adopting the label “atheism” in part because of its stigma, and in part because it’s a major focal point and common thread uniting the various people involved. We all share atheism, and by and large, we also share a common set of values.

Movement atheism has always been atheism plus.

So is “Atheism+” necessary? I’d say so, if only because it’s a label for something that’s already existed for some time now. For years, some of these atheists who share values like skepticism and education and promoting science and improving life for atheists and so on and so forth, have also realized that they share social justice values. For many of us, these values spring from the same place as our atheism–from skeptical inquiry, empathy, and valuing human rights. We’ve noticed that, unlike values like promoting science and free speech and fighting religious tyranny, suggesting that these values are things atheists should be concerned with and fight for has been much more controversial. There’ve been a lot of people pushing back against the crusaders for social justice, and one of the arguments they fall back on is that these social justice topics are “unrelated to atheism.”

They’re right, so long as by “atheism” they mean “dictionary atheism” and not “movement atheism.” Fighting school prayer has nothing to do with dictionary atheism, but I never saw these people speaking up against the campaign to support Jessica Ahlquist, or suggesting that that’s not something “atheism” should be concerned with. The place where they’ve decided to draw the line is telling, I think.

But that’s really neither here nor there. They can have their line in the sand, they can have their opposition to social justice (or do it their way), and the folks under the “Atheism+” umbrella will work on it in our way, undeterred and un-derailed by the “that’s unrelated to atheism” arguments. Fine, great, it’s related to “Atheism+.”

There is one last point that I want to hit, and I hit it (clumsily, as usual when Twitter’s involved) last night as well. It’s true that none of the stuff I’ve talked about has anything to do with atheism. And it’s also true that “atheism” shouldn’t be concerned with issues of social justice or religious freedom or whatever. It can’t be. “Atheism” is a concept–as I said, a position. It does not have the capacity for concern. But atheists–who are people–do. And this is where the Out Campaign and Science-Based Parenting and the Clergy Project and Iron Chariots all come from. Atheists are more complex than just “I don’t believe in gods.” Part of it comes from empathy and rational self-interest–we recognize that our freedom of conscience and freedom to refuse to practice a belief system is contingent upon laws and governments, so we fight against those laws and governments who would restrict that freedom. Part of it comes from living in religious cultures–we recognize that some people face difficulties when they come out as atheists or living among the religious, and so we raise money for them, create support networks and discussion forums for them, and come out ourselves to remove the stigma. Part of it comes from the values that led us to atheism, like skepticism and education and science and so forth–we fight for good science and argue against the unsupportable claims of religions. Movement atheism has been, from the very start, only in small part about dictionary atheism, because dictionary atheism is only a small thing. The conferences, the speeches, the books, the movies and videos and blogs and podcasts, have all been about what interests and concerns atheists, not atheism.

And “Atheism+” is about recognizing that there are more things that should concern atheists if they want to continue fighting battles–and possibly winning–for the values they share. Some people disagree, and they’re welcome to do so. There are people–atheists–who’ve disagreed with various of the values of movement atheism, from science promotion to skepticism to whatever. Some of them came along despite the differences, others were left out of the movement. And they were welcome to do so as well.

A brief primer for the dense

Let’s say I get hired to work at a store in the mall. We’ll say Waldenbooks, since they don’t exist anymore, and since I once applied and interviewed for a job at Waldenbooks which I did not get. Let’s say that, instead, my interview went really well, and the manager was quite impressed with my knowledge of and passion for books, and figured that would translate well to selling books. He didn’t think to see if I could work the register or had any customer service skills, but that’s what training’s for, right?

Well, let’s say that, on my first day at work, I show up dressed like a homeless street-preaching doomsayer. Let’s say that I spent the entirety of that day belittling the customers for their reading choices and loudly criticizing the way the store has chosen to organize its stock, and what books they’ve decided to order.

Let’s say that my manager decides to say something to me about my behavior. Let’s say that he first comes out to apologize publicly to the customers for my behavior, then takes me aside privately to admonish my actions.

Let’s say I then come in the next day and, in addition to repeating the previous day’s actions, loudly and rudely criticize my manager as well. Let’s say I also decide to avoid my manager when he seeks me out to talk to me, and screen my phone for his calls. Let’s say that, after a few days of this, he even comes out into the store while I’m working and says publicly that we need to have a private talk. I decline that talk.

When, on the following day, my manager meets me at the store entrance and takes my keys and hands me my first and last check, saying my services will no longer be needed, what my boss has done is fire me.

Firing means that I lose certain privileges. I am no longer allowed in the employees-only area of the store. I no longer get an employee discount, I no longer receive a paycheck. I can’t ring up my own books. But I am free to enter the shop, browse, and purchase books like any other customer. I am also free to enter any other store in the mall and browse and shop like any other customer. Because that’s what I am now: just another customer.

But, and apparently this needs to be clarified for some people out there, what my manager has explicitly not done is ban me. I am not banned from Waldenbooks or the mall.

Banning would be something else entirely. If, for instance, in my newfound customer status, I violated the rules and expectations of the Waldenbooks establishment, my manager might say that I was banned from patronizing the store. If I tried to enter the store again, the manager would call security to have me removed. I would not be able to enter even the public areas of the store, nor would I be able to make purchases and so forth. I would have lost the privileges associated with normal customer-hood.

Note that the manager of Waldenbooks is unlikely to have the power to ban me from the entire mall. There are dozens of other stores that I could easily patronize, should I so choose.

So you see, there is a world of difference between firing and banning. It pains me that this has to be spelled out for some people.

(And don’t even get me started on silencing.)

Hawking’s Bets

The awesome, spectacular announcement of the discovery of the Higgs boson yesterday was a crowning achievement in physics, and will hopefully lead to awesome new science.

It’ll also lead to less money in Stephen Hawking’s wallet. Hawking bet Michigan University’s Gordon Kane $100 that the Higgs boson wouldn’t be found.

That reminded me a bit of a previous bet Hawking made, regarding black holes and information. Hawking lost that bet too.

I know that correlation doesn’t equal causation, but given this track record, if I were Stephen Hawking, I’d be finding someone to take a bet that they won’t discover a unified field theory in my lifetime.

I mean, it can’t hurt, right?

Lost in the Shuffle

With all the sexist derailment on the harassment policy topic thanks to folks like Thunderf00t, I think there’s a detail being lost in the shuffle. A lot of attention has been given to the notion that publicized harassment policies and clearly-stated rules will help to curb harassment by contributing to a culture that does not tolerate it. Critics usually seize on this part of the process, committing a perfectionist fallacy when they claim that such a policy won’t stop all harassment, so why try; being dismissive of real concerns by saying that publicizing this policy will cause others to fall victim to the availability heuristic1 and think the problem is bigger than it is; and saying that policies don’t need to be publicized, and we should just expect people to know and follow the rules (not sure how that one works, honestly).

The thing about harassment policies is that (properly implemented), they’re not just for the attendees, they’re also for the staff. A good harassment policy includes procedures for staff and volunteers to follow when taking reports of harassment. A good policy would leave no ambiguity in terms of what constitutes a report or how many reports were made at a given event. A good policy would have any investigation done at the time of the report, and not a year or more later.

You’ll note a theme here, as those are all points where TAM in particular is known to have failed with regard to their harassment policy. It’s great that they had one, but there appears to have been too little training or standardization of the policy and its procedures among the staff. It was good that they had a policy, but the policy needs to improve, so the mistakes that have plagued previous years are not repeated.

This is an important and undeniable point that has, I think, been somewhat overlooked. And given what we know for a fact about at least one conference and how it handled harassment reports, I can hardly see how any critic can, in good faith, oppose this point.

But I haven’t seen much good faith from any of the critics, so I suppose it’s a moot point.

1. I realize Carrier isn’t criticizing the notion of having good, well-publicized harassment policies, but others, like Thunderf00t and DJ Grothe have used this heuristic problem as a critique of the process.


Man, this has been a banner year for demonstrating that atheist luminaries have feet of clay. Or, in some cases, manure. Case in point: Thunderf00t, an atheist science-vlogger whose YouTube videos about science, skepticism, atheism, and creationism have long been among my favorites. It’s been awhile since I diligently checked my YouTube feed, but it’s still subscribed to Thunderf00t’s channel. I’ve even used his video showing the difference in combustion speeds of different chemicals in my classroom. But I may be cancelling that subscription in light of the recent (to me, anyway. Some are less surprised) revelation that Thunderf00t is a colossal asshole.

I’m not going to get too deep into his strawmanning, goalpost-shifting, asinine post on Freethoughtblogs. Other people are covering that better. Instead, I’m going to address a little bit of side-assholery that came out this morning, in response to a request by Skepchick blogger Surly Amy. See, Thunderf00t’s post used this photo that Amy had taken for this great post. She asked that Thunderf00t either credit her for the image (TF’s post is strangely lacking in links, citations, or basic research of any kind) or take it down.

Thunderf00t decided to go for the “both” option, and put up this image instead:

Look at all the scare quotes!

Look at all the scare quotes!

First, this is some world-class douchebaggery on display right here. Before I get into the nitty-gritty of the asinine argument presented by his revised image, I want to address the strawman it contains first. It’s not the ‘logic’ that’s copyrighted, it’s the fucking photograph. And there’s no scare-quote “copyright” about it; photographers have the rights to their photos. Ask anyone who’s hired a professional photographer to take pictures at a wedding or other event; you have to get licensure and so forth just to make copies. Posting without attribution? Unquestionably a violation of copyright.

I don’t think Thunderf00t, someone who’s been on the receiving end of lots of fraudulent copyright claims, is so stupid or ignorant as to think anyone was claiming the “logic” was “copyrighted.” I think he’s an asshole without a leg to stand on, so he makes this asshole strawman dig to make Amy look irrational. Because, you know, she’s a woman who dares to disagree with his uninformed knee-jerk opinion.

Now, as to Thunderf00t’s counter-‘logic’ (look, I can use scare-quotes too! Or do the Brits call them scare-inverted-commas?), I’d like to direct your attention to the subtle change TF00t made in the phrasing. Clearly, “sexism” in the first example is equated with “fire” in the second. So his additional bit of “when there isn’t one [a fire]” suggests that he thinks/claims/demonstrates that there is no sexism.

Except that’s not what he’s claiming, at least, not in the portion of his post that I could stomach reading. It’s all “*THIS REALLY ISN’T A BIG PROBLEM*” and “Put simply if your primary focus is on the conference scene, then in the internet age, it’s probably misplaced” and “If I want to chew on some womans leg in a bar, I don’t want to have to consult the conference handbook to see if this classes as acceptable behavior!”

To put it in Thunderf00t’s metaphor, there’s a group of people “screaming fire” and one asshole saying “That fire’s not even that big! In fact, that fire’s happening in a really small building that only a few people occupy, and most of the people are in this building, so why worry about that fire? In my experience, the fire in that building is among the least hot ever! That fire is no worse than the fires you’d encounter at your average campsite or bonfire! I think you’ll find that most people aren’t arsonists or pyromaniacs. What’s next? Will I have to fill out a form in triplicate if I want to light a cigarette? If someone wants me to light their fireplace, I should be able to do that? And if I want to light a fireplace in someone’s house, I don’t want to have to consult the safety guidelines to see if it classes as acceptable behavior!”

And in the meantime, the building is burning. Granted, the Conferences Building is rather small compared to the Internet Complex, and yet the Internet Complex is ablaze in a towering inferno. In fact, temperature in the YouTube Office Suite, which Thunderf00t occupies, is hot enough to forge steel weapons. Stories keep cropping up, where one person talks about how they were given a hot foot, or how someone waved a lit match at them in an elevator. People are getting e-mails helpfully telling them that they ought to wear suits made of asbestos and carry around big buckets of water. Crowds chase after people with torches. People slinking around with jugs of gasoline and boxes of matches, who keep threatening to set fires, who have recorded histories of describing their interest in fires and posting pictures of fires are dismissed as harmless, that suspicions of such individuals are overblown and unreasonable.

And while Thunderf00t’s in his burning office suite screaming that the fire next door is nothing to worry about, people in both buildings are getting burned.

I’d say that Thunderf00t should find better things to do with his time than stack up giant Jenga towers of anecdotes and accusations and text formatting that would make Gene Ray blush, but he’s obviously got bigger things to worry about.

I mean, he just set himself on fire.