Dawkins talks Sociology… and Fails Miserably

Richard Dawkins, the celebrated biologist and oft-described member of the “four horsemen” of atheism has opened his mouth before thinking again. He recently put the following on Twitter:

All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.

While I understand the comparison he’s trying to make, he did it very poorly. When a prominent and very outspoken atheist goes onto a service with such a wide audience and says something like that, it invites backlash, and he got it in spades. In fact, Dawkins went so far as to respond to some of the criticisms he received in his very typical dismissive way.

Apparently, and I can only speculate as I rarely 1 use Twitter, the responses were mostly a variation on a theme of race and racism. Now, calling what Dawkins said racist is like calling the Pope’s remarks on homosexuality sexist. It’s not quite the same thing and you sound silly when you do it. So I won’t deny Dawkins a measure of retaliation for such ignorance.

However, in the middle of his written rant to the masses of his detractors, he went and did this:

Race is not a biological concept at all but a socially constructed one. In the sociological sense you can convert to a race because race is a social construction.

There may be sociologists who choose to redefine words to their own purpose, in which case we have a simple semantic disagreement. I have a right to choose to interpret “race” (and hence “racism”) according to the dictionary definition: “A limited group of people descended from a common ancestor”. Sociologists are entitled to redefine words in technical senses that they find useful, but they are not entitled to impose their new definitions on those of us who prefer common or dictionary usage. You can define naked mole rats as termites if you wish (they have similar social systems) but don’t blame the rest of us if we prefer to call them mammals because they are close genetic cousins to non-social mole rats and other rodents.

(emphasis his)

There is such a massive fallacy in that bolded sentence which he completely missed that I’m going to address it before I get on to roasting Dawkins over a slow fire.

One cannot “convert” to a race. That’s all. Michael Jackson, for all his riches, fame, notoriety, and skin conditions, was still a black man. He could not just wake up one day and say, “I’ve converted to white-ism! Don’t call me black anymore, I’m white.” Just like I can’t wake up one morning and text all my friends “Hey guys, I’ve decided to convert to black. I know it’s not going to be easy for you to accept, I’ve been white all my life, but I really feel that’s where I belong.” I would get laughed at and called an idiot. Just like I laughed at and called Dawkins an idiot for his ramblings on sociology.

Had Dawkins left it at what I just wrote, then I would have been happy, but no, he continued with his own snark at the expense of a discipline which he has not the first clue about.

Dawkins, like others I’ve encountered who try to use the dictionary like the Bible, stop with the first passage and forget that there are typically multiple accepted definitions for any given word. For example, Dawkins wrote “I have a right to choose to interpret “race” (and hence “racism”) according to the dictionary definition: ‘“A limited group of people descended from a common ancestor”’.” While that is the first sentence of the second definition of the term “race,” it is not the only definition and it is certainly not the main one.

In fact, as is usually the case with such ambiguous things, I have to ask Dawkins, which dictionary are you using sir? For example, Merriam-Webster’s entry (omitting the first two about competitions and running) goes like this:

3race noun
Definition of RACE

  1. : a breeding stock of animals
    1. : a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stock
    2. : a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristics
    1. : an actually or potentially interbreeding group within a species; also : a taxonomic category (as a subspecies) representing such a group
    2. : breed
    3. : a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits
  2. obsolete : inherited temperament or disposition
  3. : distinctive flavor, taste, or strength

Now, according to Dictonary.com (which aggregates multiple sources across the world), one of the multiple entries goes like this:

Dictionary.com Unabridged

2 [reys] Show IPA

    1. a group of persons related by common descent or heredity.
    2. a population so related.
    3. Anthropology
      1. any of the traditional divisions of humankind, the commonest being the caucasian, Mongoloid, and Negro, characterized by supposedly distinctive and universal physical characteristics: no longer in technical use.
      2. an arbitrary classification of modern humans, sometimes, especially formerly, based on any or a combination of various physical characteristics, as skin color, facial form, or eye shape, and now frequently based on such genetic markers as blood groups.
      3. a human population partially isolated reproductively from other populations, whose members share a greater degree of physical and genetic similarity with one another than with other humans.
    4. a group of tribes or peoples forming an ethnic stock: the Slavic race.
    5. any people united by common history, language, cultural traits, etc.: the Dutch race.
    6. the human race or family; humankind: Nuclear weapons pose a threat to the race.
    7. Zoology . a variety; subspecies.


Nowhere, except for a standard google search for the definition of race, do I find the text “A limited group of people descended from a common ancestor.” I have to wonder whether Dawkins made up his “dictionary definition” of race. Obviously the definition of something he sees as common changes depending on the source.

Race is not as simple a concept as you try to make it out to be. In the biological sense, race is definitely a simple concept, but the race you are trying to talk about is not race in the biological sense, but in the sociological. To say there is only one definition of race and thus, racism, is to ignore the social reality race presents across the globe for those disenfranchised by the phenomenon.

Take, for example, the profiling of muslims by the U.S. and other governments in the aftermath of 9/11 and other bombings. These profiles are based on physical and cultural characteristics such as facial hair, skin color, clothes, company kept, and similar aspects of a person’s life. Merriam-Webster’s 2:b definition of race fits all of these aspects. Thus, according to the dictionary definition, this would be called racial profiling.

I’m not saying we can or should separate the biological aspects of race from the concept, but we also cannot separate the cultural aspects of race from the concept either.

The final thing I’ll say on this matter is that by Dawkins logic of a “common or dictionary definition” then the common or majority must overrule an expert’s opinion. This means that Dawkins has, in one sentence, undermined everything he has fought for in the realm of science vs. creationism. Good job sir.



  1. I have an account, but I only use it anymore to promote this blog

Who are atheists?

When last we left our hero, he was blissfully unaware of how much work was really 1 expected of him…

In the course of meandering my way through this first week, I’ve hit on a couple of possible topics for my sociological discourse on the atheism movement in the United States.

First is the so-called “New” atheists. First of all, what does that even mean? Are we second wave, third wave, fifteenth wave, none of the above, or something altogether different? I know bloggers all around the internet have given treatises ad nausea on what, who, how, why, and whether it exists or is complete bollocks, but I’ve yet to see any comprehensive research on the topic. Second is what makes atheists a group beyond their shared disbelief. Two example research questions would be “What are the sociopolitical ideologies among atheists in the United States” and “What sociopolitical struggles/lives do those who openly identify as atheists have/lead?” We’ve talked quite a bit on how we’ve been afraid to come out for fear of reprisal in work, family, and public lives. While we have plenty of anecdotal evidence from speakers (whose experiences I don’t mean to diminish), we have precious little hard data to go on. As mentioned in my previous post what we don’t know about who we are as a group is frightening.

I wonder if I could get funding to do this?


  1. as the second years giggle maniacally in the background

Telling people how to feel doesn’t work

Researchers at the University of Toronto Scarborough recently submitted an article to the journal Psychological Science 1 showing how, basically, telling people not to be prejudiced backfires on us and actually increases prejudice in those told.

Based heavily on self-determination theory 2, Legault et al proposed that the most effective method of reducing prejudice was to cultivate internal motivations rather than external ones. They showed this through two experiments. In the first, participants were given one of three brochures, a brochure explaining the virtue of personal value of non-prejudice, a brochure telling them to conform to social norms of non-prejudice, and a no brochure group where participants were simply informed of what prejudice is. These groups were then given a test to assess their external or internal motivation. In the second experiment, participants were assessed based on the Implicit Associations Test 3 4. Their results, not surprisingly, confirm that when we tell people what to feel, they do the exact opposite.

How does this relate to us, you may ask? In the atheist movement, some of our most prominent people are in the confrontation camp (e.g., Dawkins, Hitchens, P.Z., and J.T. Eberhard, to name a few), and our most prominent messages are ones of confrontation (i.e., “you KNOW it’s a myth”). Further, in a more recent example, Rebecca Watson had the good sense to tell a large group of atheists that women should not be objectified, and a multitude of people are acting in the exact opposite of that message 5. Psychologists and political scientists have shown how confirmation bias and the backfire effect 6 7 constantly affect our ability to reason with the other side of the argument.

In other words, telling people how to feel doesn’t work, but linking the stance to personal value just damn well might. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for calling someone on their bullshit when they spit egregious facts in my face, but when trying to convince someone that their actions are wrong, telling them outright may not be the answer. Obviously, in any situation where you feel in danger, you don’t have the time to explain in detail how the other person could benefit by not acting like an asshat. However, when we’re in front of a large group of people to give a talk on whatever topic of interest, we might do better to look for more intrinsic motivators in our calls for action.


  1. Legault, L., Gutsell, J. M., & Inzlicht, M. (2011, June). Ironic Effects of Anti-Prejudice Messages: How Motivational Interventions Can Reduce (but also increase) Prejudice. Under Review. Retrieved July 11, 2011, from http://www.michaelinzlicht.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2011/06/Legault-Inzlicht-Gutsell-in-press.pdf
  2. Self-determination theory at the University of Rochester: http://www.psych.rochester.edu/SDT/
  3. explanation of and examples of the IAT: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Implicit_Association_Test
  4. Take a sample IAT: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/
  5. see my previous post
  6. describes how, when confronted with evidence which conflicts our beliefs, those beliefs become stronger
  7. Nyhan, B., & Reifler, J. When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions. Political Behavior, 32(2), 303-330. doi:10.1007/s11109-010-9112-2

Ask an Atheist Day

Today I attended my very first Ask an Atheist Day as one of the Atheists behind the table. It was great fun, although I didn’t get to be there for the vast majority of the day (stupid classes and their taking up of my free time). I was honestly surprised on the number of people who stopped to ask us questions. They ranged from the non-typical trollish “how do magnets work” to the funny. A few people had some serious questions. I tackled three if memory serves me and I’ll relate what I can remember here.

The first question asked to me was in regards to morality, “where do your morals come from?”

A: There are several very good answers to that, but since I’m a sociologist I’ll answer this from a evolutionary sociology point of view. My morals come from the interactions I have with other people. If we are to survive as a species, we can’t go around killing people and randomly taking other people’s things, we simply wouldn’t get very far as a species if we did that. Therefore, as we evolved, we learned that certain things like murder and theft were antithetical to our mutual survival. As such, we adopted those evolutionary emotions which prevent us from doing those things on a regular basis. My morals were not taught to me by a book, but by my parents, and their parents, my interactions with my friends, my education, and the rest of the people around me.

He followed up with “then there is no base moral code?”

A: Not really. Except for maybe “no killing,” which in certain cultures is perfectly fine under the right circumstances, there is no universal base moral code by which everyone follows or should follow. From a historical perspective, what we consider to be moral and just now may not have been seen that way 500 years ago, and especially not in the days when that book was written. (He was holding a bible).

I got a lot of questions about “what atheists believe.” Every time I had to make the people asking the question narrow what they’re talking about though, as every time it was asked I responded by saying “in reality, every person sitting at this table would answer that question differently, but if you’re asking whether we believe in god, the answer is no.” This statement then had to be followed up by reminding them that belief in something is not a statement about whether it exists or not. I always said that my companions here would disagree with me, but I see absence of evidence as evidence of absence. I would tell them that “you may believe that the tree behind me is composed of marshmallows, but I can walk over there, cut it up, and show you that it isn’t. Likewise, you may believe there is a god, but you can’t prove its existence. No matter how hard we try, no matter the test we run, we can’t find any evidence. For a being that supposedly created everything, we should be able to find something, and we can’t.”

I also fielded several questions on what the difference between an atheist and an agnostic is. I would reply with some variation of “you’ve chosen one of three options, either god is, god isn’t, or you don’t know. If god is, pick a religion. If god isn’t, you’re an atheist. If you don’t know, and refuse to make a choice between is and isn’t, then you’re agnostic.”

The last memorable discussion started with the current goings-on on campus. Friday is a day of silence for the LGBTQ people who’ve been silenced over the years. The LGBTQ group on campus has written several empowering messages in chalk on the sidewalks like “being gay is okay.” These messages have been co-opted by someone or some group who has written hate-filled bigotry beneath them. For example “even children know two mommies is wrong.” Thankfully someone went behind them and wrote all the statistics for same-sex couples raising children. There were other examples, some just simply filled with hate, but I neglected to write them down so I can’t remember them well enough to quote.

So this gentleman talked about this, and wondered what the difference was between “hate” and a “dissenting opinion.” I answered that the difference lies in whether the message attacks or informs. I said “being gay is not okay” is not necessarily hate, because it’s not specifically attacking, it’s just an opinion. Some people will be offended by it, but that alone does not constitute hate. However, saying “gays are an abomination unto the lord” is hate because you’re specifically attacking who they are. I admitted my argument was weak on this one, but Jeff Van Booven was there and he bolstered my argument by taking it in the direction of oppression vs opinion. The gentleman then asked whether or not the LGBTQ people were oppressing him because if he wrote “gay is not okay” he would be ostracized. Jeff and I both basically said that no, they wouldn’t be, because they don’t have the social or political capital to oppress anyone. He couldn’t quite wrap his head around this, and mentioned that he wouldn’t be a minority in Missouri, but if he went to the Bronx or somewhere similar he would be (this gentleman was white). I told him not to conflate number of members with minority/majority. When talking about minorities, we are talking about their social and political capital. I said “by sheer numbers, the minorities in this country already outnumber the whites, but that does not remove white people from having all the power. Your trip to the Bronx may make you see a larger physical number of black people, but just entering that space does not remove you from your membership to the dominant culture.

We drummed up some business for Skepticon, and I met quite a few new people who are atheists. All in all it was a good day. Even if we had a few people look at us like we were nuts.

Not the Philosophy of Atheism

Why Can't You Leave Religion Alone?

The Thinking Atheist posted this question, along with a lengthy answer, on their Facebook page as a note.

I post it here for a couple of reasons: 1. Because I agree completely with it. 2. Because it is a perfect example of social context.

The religious in the United States have been cocooned for far too long. They can drive around town and be within sight of a church no matter where they go. Likewise, they see religious messages and iconography on billboards and businesses which support their beliefs. Since these beliefs are usually a positive influence on their lives, messages which hatefully condemn others are easily dismissed as necessary to spread the word; no matter how hurtful those messages are to non-believers. To them, their message is the Truth™ and we just haven’t accepted it yet.

For us, it is a delusion; a conclusion which evidence (or lack thereof) has brought us to and many of us see the situation above in the exact opposite way. The biggest difference between Believers and non-believers is not belief, but this; when non-believers openly express their conclusions we are attacking the belief, not the person; when believers openly express their beliefs they are attacking us, not our conclusions.

There are so many Christian groups out there who preach tolerance and understanding. Why don’t those groups ask the same question of their brothers and sisters in faith? Why can’t you allow Atheists to speak about our conclusions with as much respect and tolerance as you wish to be granted you? Sadly, Seth answers those questions as well.

Original text

The protests come every day from the religious, and they go something like this:

“Why spend your time disproving God?”

“Why not just let people believe what they want to believe?”

“Why can’t you leave religion alone?”

As one YouTube commenter said recently, “No one can explain to me why it is so important to convince theists to abandon their beliefs.”

The answer is simple. Pages like this one exist because religion exists.

Religion permeates our culture, shows up on our doorsteps with literature, scriptures and threats of eternal damnation, influences our science books, contaminates our political systems, indoctrinates our children and postulates that its doctrine must be followed, lest we be destroyed in body, in soul, or both.

Non-believers are simply responding to the avalanche of religious messages that bears down upon us daily.

Religion gets carte blanche to be as vocal as it wants, to knock on our doors and accost us in our homes, in our places of work, in our personal and professional lives. Believers are charged with a life mission to preach, teach, disciple, shout it from the mountaintops and to “go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” Religion…is everywhere.

Ask yourself. When’s the last time an atheist rang your doorbell with the Good News of Humanism? How often do you find Richard Dawkins books in the dresser drawers of your hotel rooms? When was the last atheist temple erected in your neighborhood? Have you ever attended an atheist revival? Has atheism demanded 10% of your household income? How many dedicated atheist television channels come through your satellite dish? How many atheist verses were you instructed to memorize as a child? When’s the last time someone thanked a FARMER (or even the cook) at the dinner table instead of God?

On a more radical front, what’s the name of the last atheist who sawed the head off of an “infidel?” Or sentenced a shrouded woman to death for displeasing an oppressive husband? Or strapped explosives to his belt in order to kill hundreds in a public square? Or publicly hung a gay person for his choice of lifestyle?

It’s everywhere. Religion is a pounding drum that has gone mostly unanswered for a long, long time. And religion is not satisfied with merely existing quietly in the homes and hearts of the faithful. Its very nature compels the believer to proselytize, preach, promote, convince, convert and prevail. If you play on the team of the religious, your game plan is to stay, always, on offense.

Throughout our history, those who raise a simple hand of protest against these advances have been portrayed as the real problem. Religion has attempted to marginalize and defeat legitimate questions and concerns by indignantly portraying any resistors as misguided, immoral, rudderless, angry, miserable, lost and alone.

And when skepticism challenges wildly improbable (or impossible) stories found in the bible, the Qur’an and other holy books, the religious wail, “Why can’t you just leave us alone?”

The irony is thick.

And religion impedes curiosity and inhibits learning, as the much-maligned Creation Museum proves. It stymies critical thinking. It stretches us to believe the unbelievable. And it poisons the foundational teachings we are using to train up the generations of tomorrow.

Pages like mine exist as a response… a counter-argument to ensure that the cacophony of superstition does not go unchallenged. And if your belief system is so undeniable, so factual, so provable, so real and so true, certainly it can withstand the opposing viewpoints presented here and elsewhere. Certainly, it can survive the acid tests.

Just remember. Religion began the argument. It amplifies itself before the world. And it threatens all mankind with punishment upon its rejection.

We are atheists. We are moral. We are reasonable. We are thoughtful, intelligent, compassionate, happy, fulfilled and well-informed.

And as long as religion insists on fixing human beings who are not broken, we will respond with the evidence that we are not the problem.

Skeptics in the Pub

Tonight, in about an hour, I will be giving a talk at the Springfield Freethinkers monthly Skeptics in the Pub event. The topic of said talk will be Cognitive Dissonance. As my grandfather used to say I’m “nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.”

I’ve given far more in-depth presentations before. While at Drury University, I went to the Midwestern Sociological Society’s annual conference and presented a paper on whites and how, through the abuse and misuse of Native Americans, whites were able to create their lack of cultural identity. As I’m sure can be imagined, that was a hard sell to a large crowd of all-white scholars. The discussion was long, the questions were hard, and I had many debates afterward, but I am more nervous now than I was then. The sad thing is I know this material just as well, but I think its that I know these people just as well, so I don’t want to disappoint.

I guess we’ll see whether I do or not. I’ll likely update later with the full text of the talk as well as comments and questions the event may bring once it’s done.

Wish me luck people.

EDIT: So apparently more than 50 people came to hear me speak. I don’t know what to say to this other than thank you everyone. It was a thrill to be given this opportunity.

As promised, here is the text of the speech.

Good evening everyone and thank you for coming.

We’re not the debunking type of skeptics; we’re more the make-fun-of-for-being-ridiculous kind of skeptics. Take homeopathy, for example; water apparently has a memory, but only remembers the good stuff, and forgets all the shit that’s been in it. Skeptics in the Pub talks have featured physicists, biologists, astrologists, and numerous other “ists” to talk about all manner of topics. The previous leadership team, however, wanted to branch out from the physical sciences this year, and here I am. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is James Foutch. I have a Bachelor of Science in Sociology from Drury University and am working on completing a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Missouri State University. I’m here to explain how believers in homeopathy can conveniently forget things, and in general why we all simply make shit up.

To start this off I’m going to tell a few quick stories. The first goes back nearly 200 years to a man named William Miller who, in 1833 predicted, through his unique interpretation of scripture, that Jesus was going to return sometime in 1843. He gathered quite a few followers, but ultimately he was wrong. However, the interesting note is that he revised the specific date 3 more times, and each time, he gathered more followers. He gathered so many followers in fact, that the final failed prophecy was collectively known as the “Great Disappointment.” But even that was unable to stop them and the remainder of his followers went on to become the 7th day Adventists, claiming 17 million adherents.

Next, to skip ahead a scant 100 years to the 1950s; it was a time of HUAC, of the red scare, and of UFO’s. A woman by the name of Dorothy Martin started receiving messages via automatic writing from aliens from the planet clarion who said that the world would end on December 21, 1954, but that a select few would be spared and taken aboard the spaceship. Dorothy, along with another gentleman, started gathering followers and convinced them of the truth in their words. Their followers gave up all worldly possessions and waited patiently. Now, a psychologist, by the name of Leon Festinger, knew these people were crazy and gathered a few colleagues to watch the hilarity ensue. So on December 20th, 1954, Festinger and crew watched what happened as midnight rolled around. Instead of looking around and going “oh well,” the cult nervously looked around until they found another clock that was a few minutes slower than the one they had all been watching. When that clock passed midnight, they knew the gig was up, yet they still maintained their belief. Just like the Millerites before them, they revised the end-time date several times. The only thing psychologists believe prevented the cult from gaining members as the millerites did, was the lackluster leadership abilities of Dorothy and her closest cadre.

And in an irony to end all ironies, MSNBC.com reported yesterday about a new cult, who has been around for several years, by the name of Family Radio Worldwide. They are led by Harold Camping who predicts that May 21, 2011 is the date of Jesus’ return, followed by an October date of complete annihilation for the world. Anyone want to take bets that they’ll not only be wrong as well, but will hold on to their beliefs? This is cognitive dissonance at work, and is what I’m going to be spending the next few minutes talking about.

Cognitive dissonance occurs when two or more active thoughts, or cognitions, conflict with each other. For robots this ends in meltdown like in many classic Star Trek episodes. For humans this ends in dissonance. Dissonance is an uncomfortable psychological state characterized by arousal, a basic fight-or-flight symptom, in response to conflict. Sometimes this is a state which is physically felt, but often it’s all played out subconsciously. Festinger outlined five conditions which must be present for this phenomenon to occur. One; the belief must be sincere so that it must be felt down to the core of their being. Two; the person must be committed to the belief so much that they take action upon it which is near to irrevocable. Three; the belief must be refutable. Four; the person must be confronted with undeniable evidence to the belief’s contrary. Five; the believer must have social support. Take any one of these away, and it starts to get muddled. Can cognitive dissonance occur without one of these, yes, but the likelihood is very slim.

This phenomenon can work for us. For example, the Foot-in-the-Door, or Ben Franklin, effect, so named because of a story Franklin tells in his autobiography. Franklin was beset by a political opponent, who vilified him on many occasions. In an attempt to win the opponent’s favor, Franklin asked to borrow a rare book in the opponent’s library, which Franklin returned unharmed. Thereafter, the opponent stopped being his opponent and the two became friends until their deaths. Franklin was quite puzzled by this, but came to the conclusion that eliciting a kindness is more likely to promote continued kindness. In other words, the old adage “you catch more flies with honey” is complete crap. Cognitive dissonance tells us that the opponent had two conflicting thoughts; Franklin is an opponent and I did Franklin a favor. This resolved with the opponent thought being changed. He made shit up.

Cognitive dissonance can also work against us. The belief disconfirmation paradigm of cognitive dissonance explains the Millerites, UFO cults, Family Radio Worldwide, Bigfoot, JFK assassination conspiracies, I could go on. Its converse is confirmation bias. We look for evidence to support our beliefs, but we also ignore evidence which disconfirms our beliefs. Look at racism, sexism, classism, the so-called American Dream, and countless other phenomena which have no rational basis for their continued existence based on the evidence, yet here they remain.

So how does this relate to skepticism? From a philosophical skepticism standpoint, it doesn’t, but from a methodological one, where we are simply discerning fact from fiction, it does. Extending a little further to an incredulous state, which is merely being unwilling or unable to believe something, it does as well. Skeptics, a very proud people, some would like to believe that this is their default state. This could not be further from the truth and is an example of personal cognitive dissonance. Each and every one of us are, every second, of every minute, of every day, making shit up to back up our beliefs, or to ignore those things which debunk them. The more we understand cognitive dissonance, and the more we accept we are subject to it, the more effective skeptics we all will be. Thank you.

The Q&A were less questions and more comments, but one of the questions come to mind.

Q. (I’m paraphrasing here) Can you really not have cognitive dissonance without one of the five conditions?

A. When Festinger originally created the outline he believed that was the case, however, recent research suggests that is not precisely the case. For example; a Christian being confronted with evidence to contradict their beliefs may still be subject to the phenomenon if they are alone. The reason for this is if they are in a country which is overwhelmingly pro-christian, they may have the feeling of social support simply because of the culture.

I wish I could remember all the questions and comments, and if anyone who was there reads this and would like to gently remind me, I’ll be glad to edit the post to reflect the new information.


Happy Thanksgiving

So now that most of us are well past the point of having eaten turkey, visited with family, and had a generally nice start to their long weekend I would like to remind everyone of the true meaning of Thanksgiving.

Our ancestors killed Indians and thought it was a blessing from god that they died.

Please never forget that everything whites hold precious was purchased on the backs of everyone and everything they thought was less human than them.

And now that I’ve depressed you, here’s some funny: (linky for those mobile users who can’t watch embedded Funny or Die vids)



Skepticon 3

Today marked the closing of the third annual Skepticon hosted in the buckle of the bible belt; Springfield, Missouri. With registration tipping 1400 (actual attendance closer to half that), it became one of the largest conferences of its kind in the United States, possibly the world.

What, precisely, is Skepticon though? It was something of a debate before, during, and after the conference. There are some, like Jeff Wagg, who believe that it is an atheist convention and doesn’t like it. Others, like the “cap’n,” JT Eberhard and PZ Myers wax poetically about the subject on their own blogs. Amanda Marcotte, who gave a talk about feminism as the rational position, talks about the subject as well. Wagg says it thwarts and co-opts the “skeptic movement.” JT says Wagg is just plain wrong. PZ just thinks the whole thing is ridiculous. Amanda says that by squelching atheists, you’re marginalizing their input, which is wrong 1.

I doubt Wagg attended the conference, but I can see what happened to his logic though. Because several of the speakers declined to submit a topic it appears he leapt to a conclusion. Did he email or in any way attempt to contact any other speakers to find out what they were talking about? Again, I doubt it. Skeptics aren’t supposed to make any kind of truth claims without some good evidence to back them up. A few cherry-picked titles of talks is not evidence.

So lets look at the schedule as it appears on the website skepticon.org. I’ll break them down into two categories: Atheist and Non-Atheist.

Atheist Non-Atheist
The Ten Thousand Christs and the Evaporating Jesus The Role of Irrationality in Sexism
Does skepticism lead to atheism? panel Coming Out Skeptical
Atheism and sexuality Confrontation vs. Accomodation panel
Are Christians Delusional? The Abuse of Physics by Theists and Spiritualists
Dear Christian
Patriarchs and penises

It appears, by title alone, to have three talks which have nothing to do with theism. One, by Victor Stenger, which defends science against theism, so it’s a little difficult to conflate that with a talk about atheism. For the other six; one is a panel specifically about this exact conversation, so I can’t in all honesty keep that in the pro-Atheist column. Five atheist and four non-atheist doesn’t really seem like an imbalanced conference, now does it? So the question then becomes, is the fact that some of these talks are being given by openly atheist speakers diminish their authority on skeptical topics? Do their talks automatically become about atheism merely because they identify to be atheists? I don’t think so.

All that being said, the conference did have an atheism theme, but that is not what the conference was about. Having gone to the conference, listened to all the speakers, and talked to many of the speakers I can confidently say that the conference was about skeptical inquiry, critical thinking, and challenging truth claims. While, yes, a lot of the talks, including Stengers’ “Abuse of Physics” ended on the note that science does not support the god hypothesis, only three talks really trumpeted the cause of atheism; “The Ten Thousand Christs and the Evaporating Jesus,” “Dear Christian,” and “Are Christians Delusional.”

This debate brings up two very important aspects of the movement; the privilege of those skeptics who don’t and have never lived in an area where religion is proudly proclaimed on every corner as fact, and the negative connotations of the word atheist. If Skepticon was founded and continually held in, say, Portland, then I doubt it would be so non-theism-heavy, but since context is so very important in every conversation the area has to be taken into account. Springfield, MO is the national headquarters of the Assemblies of God, has four colleges concerned with theistic education (Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Baptist Bible College, Central Bible College, and Evangel University), and has more billboards dedicated to showing you god’s truth than any other place I’ve been to. Now then, I think, contrary to what PZ thinks on the issue, it isn’t ridiculous to be talking about it. The fact that it is being talked about is a good thing and a good sign for the conference; it will keep the conference from actually becoming Atheistcon. But this is disconcerting as well; that a note-worthy skeptic wants to distance skepticism from atheism speaks leagues about the negative connotations of the word and the possible prejudices within the skeptic community as a whole.

Atheists are seen by many like this:

Whereas most of us see ourselves like this:

We need to work on reclaiming the word atheist. We are the future of the movement whether you like it or not. Skeptics shouldn’t be shunning us; they should be embracing us with open arms.


  1. EDIT: I wanted to clarify the previous point, as I may have been misconstrued to say that Amanda was wrong, when in fact I was saying that she is right and marginalization of any group is an unhealthy and, i.m.o., unskeptical attitude. My apologies to Amanda.
Confusing, isn't it? I'm a frayed knot!

On the highway of rhetoric don't get caught in a cloverleaf

Look for the diverging diamond

I was invited to a dinner party this last Sunday by a fellow Freethinker from our local Meetup.com group. Most of the people there were above 30 and those who weren’t (and some who were) quickly grew tired of the discussions and arguments being flung across the patio table. Oh but what great fun it was. We had a few artists, a gentleman who worked in advertising, a professor of philosophy, an army man, an engineer, and a few others whose careers I neglected to get. I grilled the professor on his current work, which I hope to get a copy of so I can talk about it here.

It was the army man, however, who managed to control the conversation. This, I believe, is why the majority of the guests left the conversation, because it quickly devolved from a discussion to an argument. Regardless of the situation, boys and girls, never let this happen unless you are prepared for the consequences. This gentleman, whom I will name Tom (not his real name) for the duration of this post, took the devil’s advocate position on a number of topics. The one we got stuck on and kept coming back to like being lost on a cloverleaf was the concept that we, Atheists, wanted to “get rid of” fundamentalists and control the way people think.

This is kind of starting to bother me. It’s the third time in as many months that I’ve been part of a conversation where Atheists are being accused of wanting to become an Orwellian-like control over everyone’s minds. Freethinkers don’t want to control what people think, we want to help them think better by showing them how to think. To use logic rather than abuse it.

The group talked at length about so many things and Tom’s argument would invariably come back to one of two points. Either the straw man you claim religion is dangerous therefore you want to get rid of people’s basic right to believe what they want, or the Atheism is just another form of fundamentalism argument.

Both arguments suck, but they still manage to throw a monkey-wrench in an otherwise engaging discussion when the person bringing them up has no intention of either being persuaded or conceding the floor to a different topic on the grounds that no one will see eye-to-eye on the previous one. Allow me to highlight:

Tom said people are allowed to believe what they want. I argued that they don’t if it negatively impacts someone other than themselves. I brought up the Catholic church’s well-known involvement in the spread of AIDS in Africa and other nations due to their ban on contraceptives. I also brought up the cases of Neil Beagley and Ava Worthington two children who died as a result of easily treatable conditions because their parents believed God would heal them. And then other people around the table chimed in with their own stories of so-called faith healers who allowed children to die. Tom’s response to this was; “he was going to die anyway.”

Right there. I should have stopped the discussion right there and moved on to something else. What Tom just did there is called begging the question. It demonstrates a conclusion by means of premises which assume that conclusion. In effect, Tom said, All people die. Therefore allowing Neil to die was acceptable. This is an extreme point of view in most arguments and in this one it served to allow Tom to continue to control the conversation.

I clarified that most Atheists merely want to live in a country where other people’s beliefs in things not grounded in facts have no direct impact on them. (I wish I would have been able to bring up that it is the religious fundamentalists who are actually attempting to be Orwellian and rewrite the history of our country) For that reason alone, we have every right to say something as inflammatory as “you do not get to believe what you want to so long as that belief has a negative physical or emotional impact on me.” These beliefs cause mothers to refuse simple medical care for their children. These beliefs cause women and men alike to refuse the use of the most rudimentary forms of contraceptives. These beliefs cause people to think that this world is not all they have and therefore do not need to take care of it. These beliefs are what bars two people who love and are devoted to each other the same rights as everyone else. Yes, Virginia, these are dangerous beliefs.

If their beliefs, which are based on faith, stopped at their nose then I would have zero problem with their right to believe what they will. However, they never do stop at their nose. I further explained that by saying if this other person is allowed to believe what they will then you are making their rights more important than mine and the millions of people like me because their beliefs do negatively impact people other than themselves.

While that little one-two bout of reasoning was no prizefight, I do want to draw attention to the type of arguments people like Tom bring up.

What is being dealt with here is a case of being Trolled in real life. Being trolled on the internet means “To deliberately post derogatory or inflammatory comments to a community forum, chat room, newsgroup and/or a blog in order to bait other users into responding.” It comes from fishing; where an angler drags multiple lines across the water in the hopes that it snags something. Arguments like these are not intended to be discussed, they are intended to derail your discussion. Often the person bringing these arguments in will do so in an attempt to “argue the other side,” but in reality they do little but to undermine everyone and shift focus away from an actual discussion.

These type of arguments you absolutely must refuse to be a part of. Stop when you recognize them. They are a waste of time and a waste of your mental energies. Much like a cloverleaf on a highway, they’re dangerous, inefficient, and a waste of resources. Pass them on and look for diverging diamonds; they are everything cloverleaf’s aren’t.