Move to Secular Woman

I have returned to blogging after an unplanned but very long break. But mostly it won’t be here. It will be at I will be posting links to new articles that will be published there at the same time as the articles are published, so there will still be a way to follow this blog. Occasionally I might still publish an article here, usually when it’s unsuitable for the Secular Woman Salon (fiskings of craptastic articles elsewhere, for example; or 3000 word theses I can’t break up into a series.)

In which I fansquee over my favorite talk at Skepticon

I wasn’t going to do a roundup of talks and workshops of Skepticon, because that stuff Is generally well taken care of by the folks at Skepchick and FTB.


Dr. Monica Miller‘s talk, titled “I Got 99 Problems But God Ain’t One: Hip Hop and Humanism’s New Black Godz” was fucking amazing. And I almost didn’t go, because I don’t music in general, and Hip Hop specifically doesn’t figure at all in my life. So I didn’t think I was going to get much out of that particular event. But I stayed and was glad for it. It was an hour of sociology and cultural analysis beyond the 101-level of explaining to people what “socially constructed” means, and because neither the topic nor the particular perspective on it were something I was familiar with, it was one of these talks in which I felt my brain re-arranging its well-worn ways of thinking about humanism.

Her talk was a discussion of how a humanism can be expressed with religious language, without actually talking about old bearded dudes in the sky etc. Specifically she talked about the way hip hop uses “god talk”, meaning religious imagery and language, to express non-religious, humanist ideas, e.g. criticism of class and race structures, as well as criticism of organized religion*. She mentioned that the history of this practice goes back to the slave spirituals which used religious/biblical language to talk about the very here-worldly topic of fleeing north and described this as a dominant language or framework being pushed on an oppressed people. That framework didn’t get rejected but subverted instead, put to a use different from the one the Christian framework serves/served in the dominant community. In the talk, Dr. Miller also notes that she is suspicious of statistics about the religiosity of America’s black communities, which show black Americans to be extremely religious. The interpretation of religion and the religious framework as a subverted and re-purposed thing which she presented in this talk is one way to think about this supposed religiosity: that despite superficial appearances, it’s not actually always about some “god” out there, but about “gods” in humanity; that it is humanism, expressed through god talk.

What was interesting to me at a more personal level was her self-description as both a functionalist and a deconstructionist. Most of the functionalism I’ve been familiar with until now has tended to view society as a more-or-less unified whole with structures that function for the purposes of society as that unified whole***. A functionalist who focuses on non-dominant groups, and especially on the functions of dominant structures as subverted and re-purposed by the subaltern is deeply fascinating to me. Or, as the Internet used to say, “I am intrigued by [her] ideas and would like to subscribe to [her] newsletter”. Which I can. Because she’s on twitter and she writes at Culture on the Edge, and she wrote a book**** which I have and shall read shortly, and she also wrote this paper and this paper, which I’d also love to read but can’t cuz the university finally yanked my library access *coughhintcough*.

Most importantly though, I hope to see more of Dr. Monica Miller at skeptic and atheist events. Because she’s awesome and her ideas are awesome and she’s a great speaker.[/fansquee]

– – – – – – – – – –
*The complete list of songs/videos in the talk:
No Church In the Wild, New Slaves, I am A God, Picasso Baby, and Heaven. For those who can’t do video, or like me can’t process language in music very well, here are the lyrics in text: No Church in The Wild**, New Slaves, I Am A God, Picasso Baby, and Heaven

**Note the Euthyphro dilemma :-)

***with the sole exception of the essay on the Uses of Poverty(pdf), which goes through the effort of distinguishing between benefits to society as a whole, and benefits to the dominant groups within it.

****the price is so high because it qualifies as an academic book/textbook. We don’t make the rules, we just suffer from them.

The USA is not a safe place to send kids

When I was 17, I spend a year as a student in rural Canada, which resulted in a lot of culture shock. But you’re told about that when you prepare for your trip, and also that the Canadian families are very likely going to be much more religious than what we were used to. The kids who went to the USA got similar speeches, and sometimes their experiences were similar to mine. Very often however, the experiences went like this instead:
Polish Exchange Student in US: My Half-Year of Hell With Christian Fundamentalists

For example, every Monday my host family would gather around the kitchen table to talk about sex. My host parents hadn’t had sex for the last 17 years because — so they told me — they were devoting their lives to God. They also wanted to know whether I drank alcohol. I admitted that I liked beer and wine. They told me I had the devil in my heart.

My host parents treated me like a five-year-old. They gave me lollipops. They woke me every Sunday morning at 6:15 a.m., saying ‘Michael, it’s time to go to church.’ I hated that sentence. When I didn’t want to go to church one morning, because I had hardly slept, they didn’t allow me to have any coffee.

One day I was talking to my host parents about my mother, who is separated from my father. They were appalled — my mother’s heart was just as possessed by the devil as mine, they exclaimed. God wanted her to stay with her husband, they said.

or like this: Chinese Atheists Lured to Find Jesus at U.S. Christian Schools

When Randy Liang wanted to study in the U.S., his parents’ friends at a Christian group that provides medical and small business services in Shanxi Province recommended Ben Lippen. He enrolled in January, 2010, as a sophomore, largely unfamiliar with the Scriptures and the English language.

He “really hated” the school at first, he said. “I thought they were trying to force me to be Christian. I couldn’t understand what they’re talking about. I thought, ‘This is boring.’”

Liang adjusted as his English improved and he joined teams in four sports: football, wrestling, cross-country and track. After watching a creationist video in Bible class, he developed doubts about evolution. Now a senior, he prays with teammates before games, he said. He lives in a teammate’s home, and prays with the family for success on exams.

or like this: High School Exchange Students Housed With Murderers, Sexual Predators

One of the most shocking cases alleges that at least four exchange students suffered sexually abuse over the years by the same host father — even after the first student to stay with the host reported the incidents, NBC reported.

“He said ‘this is American culture,’ and I should get used to it,” Christopher Herbon of Germany told NBC News.

or this: Exchange students live American nightmare

Jarbola said a girl from Norway, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Anne, tried to alert officials that she and some of the students were in dire straits.

Anne told CNN she had school officials send an e-mail to Aspect in October explaining how bad things were and including photographs of the inside of the home where she was placed. The home was later condemned by the city.

Anne’s high school principal took her in, but other students weren’t as lucky and spent nearly the entire school year in unsafe homes, until Children and Youth Services was tipped off about a month before school ended, Jarbola said.

Jarbola, who said Anne’s e-mail is now evidence in the criminal investigation, told CNN that when welfare officials interviewed the students, one was so hungry he wept when they gave him pizza during questioning. In all, five of the students were removed from homes where they’d been placed by Aspect.

and even though the last article is peppered with references to how very seriously the State Department is taking the cases, the end result of that taking it seriously was that the State Department requires prospective host-parents to photograph their houses and provide “outside” references, and not much else.

And exchange programs are not the only way in which bringing foreign kids to the USA can end up extremely dangerous. For one, the same reasoning that leads Fundies and Fundie schools to try to get foreign students to come to the US is also fueling the adoption-craze among fundie Christians. In the past, there have been reports of abuse related to the Fundie “To Train Up A Child” abuse manual, or the “adoptions” of Haitian “orphans” post-earthquake which turned out to be kidnappings, and other such reports. Now, there is another report about “re-homing” children, which is basically about treating international adoptees like pets, to be dumped when they become inconvenient, often onto the first person who volunteers to take them in (which, unsurprisingly, sometimes turn out to be child abusers of various kinds); and again we hear of the complete lack of oversight by US government.

It’s no wonder than that many countries are wary of sending minors to the USA. In the past, some exchange programs stopped offering exchanges to the USA; and many countries also block adoptions to the US, or insist on being able to track the well-being of these children themselves.

Swallowed by The Feminist Hivemind

I’ve not quite been able to return to full-on blogging (working on it though). However, I did commit myself to writing one of the inaugural articles to the new secular feminist bloggy-thingy, The Feminist Hivemind, so I kinda had to make myself write it.

I’ll be still primarily blogging here, but articles written for the Hivemind will be linked to from here rather than cross-posted. And especially, major articles I want to have greater visibility will probably go there, since I expect a place with more writing and more varied perspectives to also receive more traffic than my blog over here (which only sometimes gets a large audience).

Anyway, here it is: Feminism, Skepticism, Secularism, and a Venn Diagram

A collection of reading comprehension fails

I was going to respond to the second pitter response in the “dialogue” the same way I did to the first, but it turns out that’s not possible. That’s because there isn’t nearly enough content, and what content there is looks like a massive reading comprehension fail when taken at face value (one can speculate whether these pitters really are that dumb, or whether they’re playing dumb to avoid having to answer properly).

So instead, I’ll pick at some of the more interesting fuckups of that response, rather than focusing on the supposed point of the dialogue. (content of quotes not altered, but form adjusted for easier reading)

a pitter: We seek to establish real truths from untruths, for without this discernment we end up with religions, dogmas, and demagogues poisoning our society. We establish truth through the application of logic, evidence-based reasoning, critical thinking, skepticism, and scientific inquiry. Our competence in this truth-seeking endeavour is the most valuable asset we have.

Stephanie: I agree and disagree. We dont only seek truth for reasons that are that dramatic or noble. The basic reason we seek truth is that, without it, were flailing ineffectually in the dark. Curiosity drives us to seek truth. The desire to predict and control the world around us drives us to seek truth.

a pitter: Scientifically driven skeptics like us may pursue truth for different reasons compared to others in society. We agree that curiosity serves as an impetus for some people; so may a desire to explain the world around us. While desires to predict and control the world around us may serve as an impetus for some people, those reasons seem less likely to be widespread among atheists & skeptics.

1)The pitter response to Stephanie totally reads like “but we’re not like other, normal people, we’re better than the commoners! We Are Skeptics!”
2)I’m pretty fucking sure that curiosity and a desire to explain the world is the main motivation for knowledge-seeking among scientists.
3)Wanna bet they read “predict and control the world around us” not in the clearly intended sense of bending the environment to our needs (e.g. curing disease, improving agriculture, etc.), but in the Pinky and the Brain sense?

a pitter: We seek to establish real truths from untruths, for without this discernment we end up with religions, dogmas, and demagogues poisoning our society. We establish truth through the application of logic, evidence-based reasoning, critical thinking, skepticism, and scientific inquiry. Our competence in this truth-seeking endeavour is the most valuable asset we have.

Stephanie: I am unwilling to put competence at truth-seeking above other-Ill call them ‘virtues’ for lack of a better word. It is certainly important, but making it our primary consideration has come to be recognized as a bad idea. Placing the collection of knowledge above all else was the kind of thinking that led to the Tuskegee experiment. Researchers uncovered a great deal of truth about the progression of untreated syphilis, but they did so at the cost of the health and lives of people who did not volunteer to be sacrificed for truth. In response to this and other travesties, weve instituted safeguards intended to curb unchecked truth-seeking. Putting truth-seeking above ethics and compassion is deeply troubling.

a pitter: I dont see any disagreement amongst the atheist community on the importance of ethics in biomedical research.

Dumb or disingenuous? You decide! Definitely fucking hilarious though.

a pitter: In our pursuit of truth, we must test our beliefs in the forum of open and free debate. Nothing is left off the table; all claims can – and sometimes must – be fully examined and tested to determine the best evidence, arguments, and explanations. We can do this without rancour or dismissal and it is a key requirement in achieving our objectives: freeing this world of the terrible injustices we see all around us.

Stephanie: […]Where I disagree in that case is that science is supposed to be a cumulative process. Once consensus has been reached on a particular topic through that process, its typically time to shelve that topic and move on until we come across information that doesnt fit the models. Continuing to study geocentric models of planetary and stellar motion at this point would not advance our pursuit of truth. Debate does not go on forever on a topic without the introduction of substantial new information.

a pitter: This description of science seems at odds with that typically seen in a research environment. Scientists do not shelve topics and move on to the next subject. Nothing is proven absolutely in science and even topics that seem certain are being constantly tested – for example the recent experiments testing the idea that some particles might be able to exceed the speed of light in a vacuum. The principle that every hypothesis must be open to falsification is the primary means we have to distinguish science from pseudoscience. In other words, I agree that the scientific process should be as open as possible, and disagree that science is supposed to be a cumulative process in which a topic is shelved once consensus is reached.

1)How ignorant do you have to be to disagree that science is a cumulative process? If it weren’t, we’d still be trying to figure out whether the earth goes around the sun or vice versa. As Stephanie noted.
2)Wanna bet this is just their attempt at defending their refusal to let go of privilege & the biases that come with it?

Stephanie: If this is intended to suggest that individuals must test all their beliefs through debate and that this process will lead to understanding the truth, I strongly disagree. When people who are taught to debate are taught to be equally comfortable taking either side of an argument, we are looking at a process designed for winning, not truth. If we want to arrive at truth through give-and-take, we need a more collaborative process in which the goal is not to win.

a pitter: This is rather confusing and perhaps would be better expanded so that the meaning is made clearer. Certainly we cannot expect the scientific method to determine every aspect of our lives (for example regarding the love we have for family and friends, taste in music, literature, etc.) These are questions about emotions. Again, many political questions are based on personal values that have an emotional rather than empirical basis. It is best to separate out value-based questions from those that have an empirical solution.

reading comprehension fail, disingenuousness, or do they really think science is practiced like a debate club?

a pitter: We can work together by following the principles core to atheism/skepticism and remembering we are each and all fallible humans, each with one life to live and with an equal right to self-determination. We owe it to those who are hurting, suffering, and dying in this big wide world of ours.

Stephanie: Promoting reason, critical thinking, science, skepticism, atheism, and secularism is worthwhile, necessary work. I would disagree that any individual owes it to anyone to do specifically this work. There is other humanitarian work that is just as necessary and just as worthwhile. One of our challenges going forward is making people feel that ours is the worthwhile, necessary work on which they want to spend their time.

a pitter: […] we disagree if you are saying that “making people feel that ours is the-work on which they want to spend their time” is a widespread goal among atheists and skeptics.

lol. I wonder how the pitters imagine social movements grow, if not by convincing people that theirs is the work they should consider important to do/support?

Scratching at the veneer of reasonableness

I’ve been sort of half-assedly following the Atheist/Skeptic dialog thing, and was already taking notes to take the opening statement apart, but now that Stephanie Zvan has posted her “official” response which is part of this dialog, I figure I better finish up this post, before it becomes obsolete. So here you go, my version of a reply to “Jack Smith’s” introductory statement:

The primary purpose of this dialogue is to find common cause on which we can ‘work together’ while accepting diverse political and social beliefs.

If the point is to promote skepticism and evidence-based thinking, why would it make sense to accept political and social beliefs that go against the available evidence?

In our pursuit of truth, we must test our beliefs in the forum of open and free debate. Nothing is left off the table; all claims can — and sometimes must — be fully examined and tested to determine the best evidence, arguments, and explanations.

Except those ideas that are so thoroughly embedded in our society that we don’t even see them. Those must be left off the table, lest we upset the status quo and get accused of promoting “ideology”. Can’t talk about why the atheist/skeptic community is so white/straight/cis/male/middle-class dominated; can’t discuss the ways dominant perspectives dominate and exclude others; can’t talk about the unwarranted assumption that the perspectives of dominant groups are seen as “objective”, while the perspectives of minority groups are seen as biased; those things apparently must be left off the table. But discussing whether it’s women’s own fault they’re not better in STEM, that’s fine and dandy.

We can do this without rancour or dismissal

I see no evidence for this being the case; especially given that this very message accuses people who disagree of “imposing political and social beliefs on others”; also, “dismissal” has been a long-standing tradition, to the point of having its own name. The whole point of the Courtier’s Reply is that it’s something that can be dismissed because it’s an argument that assumes its premises (that god exists) and demands that the atheist do so, too.
Or to put it in the words of a dude apparently well-liked by the “atheist and skeptic community”: “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”
Apparently the thing about not dismissing people is only relevant now that it’s not just the religious but also other atheists who are the ones having their ideas dismissed.

We recognize that personal feelings have limited utility when determining objective reality.

True, except when the emotions in question are the reality under discussion. Also, we’re back to the part where dominant perspectives are considered objective (or in this case, free of emotional investment), while minority perspectives are not. Apparently it doesn’t cloud someone’s “objectivity” to have one’s privilege challenged. Because no one ever reacted to that emotionally, amirite?
Embedded in this is also the unwarranted assumption that one can’t be both emotionally expressive and right. Another unwarranted one, but another one that serves the status quo insofar as discussions of minority perspectives are more likely to elicit responses coded as “emotional” from the minorities who are the subject of discussion, than from the dominant groups (and as already noted, discussion of the dominant groups gets coded as ideological, and even genuinely emotional reactions to such discussions get coded as “rational”. funny how that works)

We therefore feel, in the interests of mutual cooperation, that it is appropriate to consider the best in others, give the benefit of the doubt, and assume others are acting in good faith.

I thought we were supposed to be empirical? People who’ve shown themselves in the past incapable of arguing in good faith don’t deserve any further benefit of the doubt; and since harm is caused regardless of intent, it’s often irrelevant at that point whether a person didn’t mean the harmful effect. t still happened, and it’ not gonna un-happen because you didn’t mean it. As such, “good faith” is worthless. Either you’re saying harmful shit, or you’re not.

Imposing political or social beliefs on others.

Sez the crew who’s trying to get RW blocked from speaking, and who throws a shitfit at the existence and popularity of FTB, and complains at the existence of WIS2 as somehow bad for skepticism/atheism; and who tries very hard to make sure that its own political and social beliefs remain the dominant flavor in the skeptic/atheist community.
Another benefit of being a dominant social group: you get to define your ideology as neutral ground, and perspectives conflicting with that ideology as impositions.

Attributing motives or character traits on others. Ad Hominem fallacies serve no good purpose in reasonable dialogue.

For the love of FSM, learn what an Ad Hominem Fallacy is. Hint: attributing motives and character traits ain’t it.

Our strength is in our diversity.

Actually, the lack of diversity in the atheist/skeptic movement is one of its greatest weaknesses and one of the main reasons we even have this rift.

Commenting on others without accepting a right of reply. The right of reply is fundamental to any open society.

Pathetic dog-whistle is pathetic. If I comment on your behavior on my blog, you have every right in the world to respond to it on your blog. What no one has a right to is a right to my readership. There’s no right to other people’s comment sections or twitter feeds.

If we criticise others then others have the right to respond to that without being personally attacked for doing so.

Ah, I see. This is one of those irregular verbs: “I criticize”, but “you attack”.

Ignoring the feelings of others. However we should not use our feelings to shut down valid and genuine debate and discussion.

And who gets to decide when an action is “ignoring the feelings of others”, and when it’s “not allowing feelings to shut down discussion”? Who gets to decide what is or isn’t valid and genuine debate and discussion?

Shutting down all forms of criticism. Criticism has been a mainstay of free debate for hundreds of years. Satire, caricature and critical commentary are a valid human response to any issue and have been for millennia.

1)”Shutting down all forms of criticism” is a strawman so huge and ridiculous, it’s absurd someone could take the claim that it was occurring seriously.
2)Again with the “valid”; what the fuck is “valid” about making fun of someone’s weight, health, or gender identity? What the fuck is “valid” about using gendered slurs?

it’s even on the walls of ancient Pompeii.

So are dick jokes and “Livia is a cheap whore” comments. The walls of Pompeii are not to be taken any more seriously that toilet-wall scribbles; which they pretty much are. Weirdest argument from authority ever.

We see the issues as a clash of ideas between those who wish to impose a particular political and social ideology, and those who wish to maintain the rationalist principles that have served us well for so many years.

What was that about “good faith” and “attributing motives” and “fully examining all ideas”?
Anyway, this is like Carlin’s “your stuff is shit, my shit is stuff” thing: “my ideology is principles, your principles are an ideology”. It also raises the question who “us” is here, since the whole point of the current “rifts” is that the ideologies that have dominated the atheist/skeptic communities so far has in fact not served many people who are atheists and who use the tools of skepticism.

This kind of imposition will necessarily divide the movement and weaken it. It will set up an ‘us vs. them’ mentality which distracts from our core aims.

A movement that will be weakened by becoming more attentive to the aims of its minority members is not worth maintaining. Like my feminism, my atheism/skepticism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit.
Aside from that, this assumes that there hasn’t already been an us vs. them going on. Judging from the comments and reactions of many minority atheists/skeptics, they were already being treated as a “them”. The difference is that they’re now speaking out about it and insisting that they want their fair share of the atheist/skeptic community.

And it will alienate our friends and allies who would otherwise wish to support us, but will be discouraged if they do not hold the same political beliefs.

If someone holds a political belief that will in effect harm me or actual friends of mine, why would I consider such a person a friend or ally?

It will impose unelected political leaders and encourage schisms.

I don’t remember the Four Horsemen being elected. And don’t tell me they’re not “political leaders”. New Atheism is and always has been political, and Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins at least have never shied from political expressions even in the pointlessly restrictive sense of politics = gubmint-work.

And why exactly are “unelected political leaders” something bad? No one ever voted for MLK or Lucy Stone. Now, unlelected government leaders, that’s a problem. But last I checked, the atheist/skeptic community was not a nation-state or any other entity with a formal governmental structure.

We do not seek to control anyone’s space, the policies in others’ spaces, or their expression of their beliefs and values. However, when people in one such space criticize or challenge other people, we feel it’s important for them to accept rebuttal or presentation of counter-evidence in accordance with the core principles outlined above.

IOW you do not seek to control anyone’s space, you just seek the right to take over other people’s spaces. Yeah, no.

Failure to reach a common ground on these issues puts at risk our efforts in achieving our common goals.

Not really. It just makes it impossible to be part of the same community. But I’m also not in the same community as the progressive Christians here in town, and yet I’m perfectly capable on working with them on common issues.

We can work together by following the principles core to atheism/skepticism and remembering we are each and all fallible humans, each with one life to live and with an equal right to self-determination. We owe it to those who are hurting, suffering, and dying in this big wide world of ours.

Meaningless, pompous waffle.