Posts Tagged ‘atheists’

When talking about morality that doesn’t depend on religion, the amount of charity work done by atheists and non-believers is often brought up. The specific example I’ve seen cited most often is probably the list of teams in Kiva’s community. The most numerous and generous group on this charitable microloans site, by a substantial margin, is that of “Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and the Non-Religious”.

It’s not as if the claim that non-theists have no motivation to act benevolently or altruistically to other people needed any more empirical data to dispel it, but this’ll certainly do.

However, once it’s established that caring about other human beings is possible, entirely independently of a subservience to an omnipotent deity, it also behooves us to take an interest in how much good we’re actually doing, besides how good a show we’re making of it. And this is where the usefulness of microfinance perhaps deserves to come under more scrutiny than is commonly the case.

Charity evaluator GiveWell has described some of the myths about microfinance, all of which are things that I probably would have assumed, given the way operations like Kiva are generally pictured. But as much as some of these foundational ideas – allowing people to expand their businesses through loans, greatly increasing the impact of a donation through re-lending, and so on – sound good in principle, the evidence for the impact these projects have doesn’t seem to support the hype around them.

It’s worth remembering what this doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that there can’t be some good to be achieved through organisations like Kiva, or that there aren’t numerous people working in microfinance who are sincerely motivated and working hard to get people out of poverty. It doesn’t mean we should get discouraged from trying to help wherever we can, and looking for more effective ways to make real change.

But it does mean we have to be open to questions about whether the efforts we’re all making right now are doing as much good as they could be, or whether we have a lot more to learn yet about what’s going to actually make the world better.

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I’m not sure how noticeable it’s been, but I’ve felt a shift in my own attitude in recent months, toward activism and online debate and whatnot. More and more, I’m steering away from using sarcasm and mockery as a first resort, and trying to find a way to sympathise and connect with people I find myself in disagreement with.

Sometimes it’s really, really hard. And it’s not always the best way to go. I’m not wading into the whole Don’t Be A Dick clusterfuffle again here, so don’t take this as a statement on how other people should be interacting. Taking the piss out of dangerous idiots absolutely has its place. I’ve just been trying to be a little softer in my own approach.

Maybe learning about rationality has helped with that, as I’ve figured out more about the ways people can be wrong, and how human it is for us to attach ourselves deeply to mistaken and illogical ideas. It doesn’t make the ideas themselves less deplorable, and it’s still important to combat ignorance and bigotry wherever we can. But even when people exhibit traits that sicken you, and act in ways that make you ashamed to be a part of their species, they’re still people. They got to where they are through entirely human processes of personal development, and even if we condemn everything they stand for, they deserve a sincere attempt to be respected.

Having said all that, some people just need to get the fuck over themselves.

After joking about the kinds of insipidly bland billboards that atheists might have to come up with to avoid pissing off any over-sensitive Christians with a persecution complex, the organisation American Atheists submitted an ad for which they wanted to buy space on the sides of some buses. The ad featured the name and website of American Atheists and the NEPA Freethought Society, and the slogan:


Yes, that’s it. It’s one word, it’s a description of a group of people, it just names an idea, it doesn’t say anything about anything, it is a joke how innocuous and inoffensive it’s possible to make a slogan.

And the transport authority rejected it.

Apparently mentioning atheists in a single word on the side of a bus is against their policy, on the grounds that it “could be deemed controversial or otherwise spark public debate”.

…Yeah. And refusing to permit the word even be seen publicly does neither of those things.

Firstly, these buses already run ads saying “God Bless America”. If you don’t think that is something which could “spark public debate”, if you think that is so uncontroversial it couldn’t possibly even provoke any sort of spirited discussion among anyone anywhere, then holy crap your Christian privilege is visible from Betelgeuse.

Second, if you think mentioning atheists in a public space – nothing more than acknowledging the existence of a group of people who have a different opinion from you – is so controversial, so frightening, so potentially damaging and traumatising to your nation’s poor children that you cannot morally endorse such a thing: Fuck you. Just fuck you.

American Atheists want this resolved without having to sue. They’ve requested the matter be corrected, without calling anyone a deranged, prejudiced fuckwit. They’re better at this sort of thing than I am.

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Another nobody

Well, this is a grand occasion indeed. PZ Myers has identified one of the greatest geniuses ever to walk the earth.

But you don’t have to take my or PZ’s word for it. Just listen to the prodigy himself:

Around 2007 upon arising from higher states I started awakening this strange innate ability for argumentation logic that I have which surpasses even Aristotle and William of Ockham.

My innate ability for argumentation logic is probably as high or higher than the innate ability that Euler or Ramanujan had for theorems and mathematics.

Clearly we are privileged even to be in the presence of such an ascended being.

Oh, and he really doesn’t like atheists.

It takes very little sniffing round the stench of his blog to realise that this guy’s nothing special, just another religious nut with a way more explicitly and unabashedly grandiose sense of self-worth than most. Perhaps it’d be wiser to just not get involved, but sometimes this is the kind of thing that it’s worth calling out, partly just to keep my eye in, and partly to make sure there is always a strong counter-opinion available to such hateful bilge.

Or maybe I’m rationalising because I’d already written a good chunk of this before realising just quite how far off the deep end he really is.

Anyway, here’s a comment I’ve just left on his ‘About Me’ page.

I’ll bite:


1. You claim:

My innate ability for argumentation logic is probably as high or higher than the innate ability that Euler or Ramanujan had for theorems and mathematics.

Since you also seem so fond of the principle sometimes known as “Ockham’s Razor”, I’m sure you’ll appreciate that, for someone who’s happened to wander onto your blog only recently, the truth of this assertion is a less parsimonious explanation than an alternative: for instance, that you greatly overestimate your own abilities. I’ve seen people do that all the time, but people more innately brilliant than Euler or Ramanujan seem much thinner on the ground that people too arrogant to know their own limits.

According to Wikipedia, Ramanujan “independently compiled nearly 3900 results (mostly identities and equations)”, the majority of which were true and original. He’s recognised as one of the great geniuses of the field, which of course is why you use him as a comparison. It would be a violation of Ockham’s Razor for us to accept your claim uncritically based on no evidence, so: how does your tally of publications in your own specialist field compare?

And, a follow-up: Ramanjuan died at the age of 32. You say you’re in college, so I’d guess you’re younger than that. How much do you expect to have changed the world by that age, and what evidence is there of your progress so far?


2. In defence of some of the accusations made against you, you say:

In the delusional atheist’s world:

“Newton was a crackpot, so Newton’s geometric proofs must be wrong”

“Ramanujan had no college education and flunked out of college more than once, so his theorems are wrong”

“Faraday had no education after the age of 13, so his experiments and ideas are useless”

As you imply, these would all be examples of ad hominem logical fallacies. Please point me to an instance of an atheist (ideally one in some way connected to the mainstream atheist movement) making any or all of the above claims.


3. You quote atheists as saying, among other things: “What’s wrong with being a Nazi?”

Please point me to an instance of an atheist sincerely asking this question, or making any of the relevant claims. I’m an atheist, I interact regularly with many atheists, and I’ve never heard any of them express the opinions you attribute to them and would be appalled were they to do so. The fact that your portrayal of atheists is so out of line with my own indicates to me that you don’t actually know what atheists or atheism are about that well. The fact that you actively assert they shouldn’t be treated as human beings – a more hateful, dehumanising, and frankly childish claim than anything I’ve heard from an atheist, or almost anybody else – further indicates to me that your characterisation of atheists as hateful doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously.


4. You say of atheists here:

They are terrible people, there is none that opposes racism and none that will ever voice any opposition to racism.

Claiming that no atheists oppose racism, or will ever voice any opposition to racism, sounds like a testable hypothesis to me. How could it be falsified, and how much did you test its soundness before asserting it? Did you encounter blogs such as Daylight Atheism, Greta Christina, The Crommunist Manifesto, or The Friendly Atheist in your research?


5. You discuss Ockham’s Razor a number of times. This has been phrased by past philosophers as, for instance: “Whenever possible, substitute constructions out of known entities for inferences to unknown entities”, or “Plurality should not be posited without necessity”.

Your own “vastly superior” definition reads thus: “the conclusion drawn from making the least possible amount of assumptions”.

Your “vastly superior” definition does not take the form of a principle or a piece of advice, but rather a sentence fragment. What about the conclusion drawn from making the least possible amount (may I suggest “fewest possible” as a less clunky phrasing) of assumptions? Is it always true? Most commonly true? Do the relative plausibilities of the assumptions in question have any bearing on the principle? Is there any reason we should believe your phrasing actually is “vastly superior” than, say, Bertrand Russell’s, rather than that you just prefer to believe that because of your inflated sense of self-importance?


6. You recently disabled ratings for comments on your blog, after a lot of your own comments drew extremely negative ratings. You said:

…the rating (thumbs up or thumbs down) a comment gets is just an argumentum ad populum

The rating a comment gets is a reflection of how many people have rated it up or down, nothing more. An argumentum ad populum would be, for instance, if somebody were to claim that the truth or falsehood of statements made in a comment could be determined solely by examining their rating, regardless of the logical merit of the statements themselves.

Please show an instance of an atheist making such an argument.


7. Are you aware of what some might find ironic in the fact that you call atheists both “the lowest of the low, the worst people, the most disgusting form of life”, and also “the most hateful of all human beings” in the same sentence?

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Here’s a video I enjoyed today, in which thirty wordsmiths of note from around the world discuss their lack of belief in God:



Although there’s some variety in the tone they set, there’s a greater preponderance of deliberate antipathy toward religion than simply apologetic or uninterested disbelief. Even Germaine Greer is on particularly good form.

But Christopher Hitchens is still an obvious stand-out, for me. As problematic as his legacy may have been in various other areas, what he says right at the end of the above clip is perhaps the greatest elevator pitch against Christianity that I’ve heard.

In case you’re in a rush and don’t want to spend a half-hour watching the whole thing through, here’s what Hitch had to say:

In order to be a Christian, you have to believe that for ninety-eight thousand years, our species suffered and died – most of its children dying in childbirth, most other people having a life expectancy of about twenty-five, famine, struggle, war, suffering, misery – all of that for ninety-eight thousand years, Heaven watches it with complete indifference…

And then two thousand years ago thinks: that’s enough of that, it’s time to intervene, and the best way to do this would be by condemning someone to a human sacrifice somewhere in the less literate parts of the Middle East. Don’t let’s appear to the Chinese, for example, where people can read and study evidence and have a civilisation, let’s go to the desert and have another revelation there.

This is nonsense, it can’t be believed by a thinking person.

Why am I glad this is the case? To get to the point of the wrongness, in the other sense, of Christianity. Because I think the teachings of Christianity are immoral, and the central one is the most immoral of all, that is the one of vicarious redemption: you can throw your sins onto somebody else, vulgarly known as scapegoating – in fact originating as scapegoating in the same area, the same desert.

I can pay your debt, if I love you. I can serve your term in prison, if I love you very much, I can volunteer to do that. I can’t take your sins away, because I can’t abolish your responsibility and I shouldn’t offer to do so. Your responsibility has to stay with you. There is no vicarious redemption. There very probably, in fact, is no redemption at all, it’s just a part of wish-thinking, and I don’t think wish-thinking is good for people either.

It even manages to pollute the central question, the word I just employed, the most important word of all, the word “love”, by making love compulsory, by saying you must love. You must love your neighbour as yourself, something you can’t actually do, but will always fall short, so you will always be found guilty. By saying you must love someone who you also must fear, that is to say a supreme being, an eternal father, someone of whom you must be afraid but you must love him too, and if you fail in this duty you are, again, a wretched sinner. This is not mentally or morally or intellectually healthy, and that brings me to the final objection, and I’ll condense it, which is that this is a totalitarian system.

If there was a god who could do these things and demand these things of us, and was eternal and unchanging, we would be living under a dictatorship from which there was no appeal, and one that could never change, and one that knows our thoughts and can convict us of thought-crime and condemn us to eternal punishment for actions that we are condemned in advance to be taking.

All this in the round – and I could say more – it’s an excellent thing that there is absolutely no reason to believe any of it to be true.

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Let me briefly remind you about Bill Donohue before getting into this:

No institution, religious or secular, has less of a problem with the issue of sexual abuse today than the Catholic Church.

Yeah, for some reason we’re still paying attention to that guy.

Donohue’s “Catholic League” recently launched an “Adopt An Atheist” campaign, intended to make atheists “realize that there may be Christians in their community” – especially in the case of Christians who “don’t even know they are Christian”.

Hemant’s pointed out the two major flaws in this idea. Firstly, the idea Donohue was responding to – Dave Silverman’s campaign for wider recognition of atheists, even if “those atheists don’t even know they are atheists” – actually makes a lick of sense. In such a religiously saturated country as America, the idea of someone slowly abandoning their religious belief but going through the motions anyway, because everyone in their family and their community still seems to believe and it’s the only way they know how to act, is not hard to imagine, and is probably a fairly common story among American atheists. How someone can be a Christian without realising it is far from clear.

Secondly, nobody’s unaware that there are plenty of Christians in America. Donohue’s own press release puts the numbers at around 80%. It’s not plausible to suggest that Christians have an invisibility problem, or that many atheists might not be aware of how many religious people they’re surrounded by on all sides. Atheists, and gay or trans people, are among those with this problem, because there’s a genuine stigma for a lot of people attached to coming out. Christians being ashamed to admit to their religion is not a problem on the same scale.

The thing is, I think this misguidedness would be forgiveable if the intent behind this campaign was sincere and benevolent. But for a “light-hearted message with holiday spirit“, it’s deeply self-serving and prejudicial, not to mention condescending in its language.

Part of what purportedly motivated the campaign is the idea that “this time of the year atheists don’t have anything to celebrate”, even though the Catholic League’s own statistics indicate that a substantial majority of non-Christians do, in fact, celebrate Christmas. But they also claim to be trying to help atheists to…

…no longer be looked upon as people who ‘believe in nothing, stand for nothing and are good for nothing.’

You want to know how Christians could actually help atheists not be seen like that?

Stop seeing us like that.

What Donohue doesn’t get is that we’re not all sad, empty-hearted people in desperate need of any source of light or meaning to our lives. Most of us would be doing absolutely fine, if people like him didn’t keep judging us as being “good for nothing”.

He’s explicitly saying that we need to change for his sake before he’ll give us any peace. Like Greta Christina says, fuck that noise. Donohue himself has made it abundantly clear that we’re not the ones with the problem.

The parallel to homosexuality is again worth making. A lot of Christians who consider themselves loving and tolerant toward gay people still maintain that it’s the gays who need to change, not them who need to stop accusing other people of being inherently sinful. (That post has a great argument about guilt-driven gay suicides. Apparently “[e]verything in the media is pro-gay”. Srsly.)

I don’t think I have many Catholic followers, but if anyone religious happens to read this and thinks that Donohue might have any kind of a point, drop me a line. I’m honestly willing to turn the sarcasm down a notch for long enough to actually engage with anyone who wants to help me discover my inner Christian. Just don’t be shocked when I continue to reject the same old ideas for the same old reasons that atheists have been giving for years.

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Because I should talk about this, but I’m getting tired of the -gate snowclone.

So there’s been yet another big gathering of sciencey types which I’m disappointed not to be attending. This one’s called Skepticon.

And although I’m sure there were lots of exciting conversations and presentations that went on there, most of the gossip from the weekend that’s made it as far as my RSS feed and Twitter stream has been about this one ice cream store, and a sign that was put up there:



If you can’t see the image, it’s a sign in the window of Gelato Mio stating: “Skepticon is NOT welcomed to my Christian Business“.

That’s a) illegal, and b) a real dick move. You really don’t get to flagrantly discriminate against any group of people like that, whether it’s Jews or blacks or Skepticon attendees.

So far, so uncontroversial. The guy’s a bigoted religious nut who’s so unable to handle having his beliefs questioned that he doesn’t mind breaking the law in his resulting childish tantrum. We’ve seen worse.

Then it started getting more complicated. He didn’t just stand by his raving intolerance and start shouting back at anyone who called him on his bullshit. His first apology was pretty thin, but he admits he was wrong, and acknowledges that many people from Skepticon had already been into his shop with no trouble.

Later, he offered a further apology, in a somewhat less boilerplate style. He says again that what he did was “inexcusable” and “completely wrong”, and that it was an impulsive action in a moment of poor judgment. He’d wandered down to visit the conference at some point, having genuinely no idea what it was about (he only seemed to connect the term “skeptics” with UFOs), and happened across a presentation somewhat more acutely critical of his religion than he was expecting. So he got angry and petulant and acted like kind of a dick.

This apology was thorough and unabashed. He did wrong, he’s sorry, he’s attempting to make amends.

So, skeptical community. Do we forgive him?

Aaaaand clusterfuck.

Jen says yes. Hemant says yes, even if the guy still has a problem with atheism. Buffy says yes, and that a sincere apology like this deserves credit, given how difficult they usually are. Ed Brayton says we should move on, and count the apology as a victory even if it was more of a PR move than anything else. SkepticMoney says yes. Hayley says yes, and has some harsh words for any supposedly compassionate humanist skeptics looking to “make an example” out of this local business owner.

Adam Lee says meh. JT Eberhard says no, and has no real interest in listening to any more of this guy’s efforts to appease him. PZ says fuck no and fuck you.

Personally, I’m not finding it helpful to insist that everything rest on the question of whether he should be “forgiven”. I’m going to take a cue from the Eliezer Yudkowsky playbook (one of the Skepticon speakers and increasingly a hero of mine), and taboo the word “forgive” and its derivatives, as well as variants on the phrase “accept his apology”. Without getting bogged down by the language, then, what do I think?

Is Gelato-man an irredeemable jerk? No. He lashed out stupidly in a fit of anger, but he’s apologised and admitted wrongdoing, which was by no means inevitable.

Does he sincerely feel remorse for what he did? I think so. I find it hard to imagine him writing what he did if he didn’t feel bad and get why he was out of line.

Are we all going to be his friends? Well, probably not. The fact that he has the capacity for such spite toward non-Christians at all tells us something about his character, and I don’t think he really merits a heart-warming reconciliation scene. We’re not obliged to like him, or find him a charming fellow, or deny that what he did was obnoxious and unlawful, in order not to bear a grudge in perpetuity.

Shall we move on from this incident now? Seems like a good idea. There’s nothing else it’s worth demanding or expecting from him. I think it’s all been sufficiently resolved that, should we have occasion to think of him in the future, we’d remember him as “that gelato guy” before “that bigoted asshole”.

Is it worth even making a fuss about this kind of thing in the first place? I think it can be. Being deprived of the chance for some ice cream may not be a major human rights violation, but casual discrimination against non-Christians or the non-religious is a big deal in a lot of places, not least the USA. Many State Constitutions give a pro-religious bias, to the point of denying non-believers the right to hold public office. Almost half of the country would disapprove of their child marrying an atheist, and nearly as many deem atheism completely at odds with “American society”. The amount of abuse and death threats atheists face, simply as a result of existing and speaking their mind, emphasises how important it is to publicly oppose this kind of bigotry. I wouldn’t want to see recriminations taken any further in this case, but calling out this kind of prejudice is important.

Should we try harder not to upset other Christian shop-owners in future? Not really. The offense that made this guy fly off the handle wasn’t any kind of vitriol directed at him; it was a presentation intended for the skeptics who chose to attend, and which satirised some aspects of popular religion. It’s not like everyone was getting together to hate on religious people all weekend. There was an assortment of attractions, all of which sound worthwhile, and many of which would be bound to offend large swathes of people who aren’t good at dealing with contrary opinions. Satire and mockery are an important part of, well, just about everything. This guy’s not obliged to like that we made fun of his invisible friend, and he’s not obliged to like us for it. But that’s a thing we get to do, and we’re not obliged to care about his wounded pride if he’s really that threatened by alternative viewpoints. Which I think he gets now.

Have I asked myself enough rhetorical questions for one day? Yes. Yes, I have.

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…K-I-S- …Wait. Um. What letter rhymes with “Vatican”?

Okay, never mind. This is about The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, part of the Vatican, which sent some sort of open letter to all Muslims not long ago.

It’s possibly a bit weird.

The end of the month of Ramadan offers the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue a welcome occasion for sending you our most cordial wishes, hoping that the efforts you have so generously made during this month will bring all the desired spiritual fruits.

Impressively flowery language aside, I actually went so far as to look up Wikipedia’s page on Ramadan to see if I’d missed something here. Yes, this issue has actually driven me to research. Horrors. Anyway, my largely ignorant assumption was basically right: Ramadan is about fasting and abstinence, and maybe more praying than usual. Quite where generosity comes into it I’m not sure.

But still, it seems an odd thing for the head of the Catholic Church to be wishing for followers of Islam: that their efforts “will bring all the desired spiritual fruits”. So, you hope that their devotion to a false god who doesn’t exist, and their denial of the true Lord Jesus, is bringing them spiritual fulfilment? Huh. I thought those were generally advised against by Christian teachings, so I’ve only done the second one. Do I get a positive wish for spiritual fulfilment from the Vatican as well?

No, evidently not. Because one thing Christians and Muslims have in common is the way they are…

faced… with the challenges of materialism and secularisation.

Oh, right. That’ll be me, then.

Of course, it is possible to be a religious secularist. One can hold religious views, but consider them a personal matter which should not influence state policy or be involved in any official legislation. But it seems clear that what the Vatican’s objecting to is the irreverence against faith often exhibited by those without it.

We cannot but denounce all forms of fanaticism and intimidation, the prejudices and the polemics, as well as the discrimination of which, at times, believers are the object both in the social and political life as well as in the mass media.

Yep. Prejudices and discrimination in social and political life. I’m sure the spiritual leader of over a billion Christians knows just as much about that as the Muslims his office is addressing.

There surely can’t be much that they have in common. What do Christians and Muslims both share, which doesn’t also include atheists (or “secularists”)? It’s not the nature of God, or Jesus, or really any of the big important spiritual questions which they both claim to have answers to. Atheists, though, have at least one thing in common with every religion: they’re the only ones who agree that all the other religions are false.

The right to practice their own beliefs in a way that doesn’t inhibit the freedom of others? The right not to have an opposing faith view forced on you? Secularists are right with you on those.

The only significant unifying factor which atheists aren’t on board with seems to be the idea that believing in some all-powerful divine overlord is good in itself, even if it’s the wrong one – even, in fact, if that belief is completely untrue. Christians, by nature of their religion, believe all Muslims to be wrong in finding the prophet Mohammed’s writings to be divinely inspired – but the fact that they believe untrue things about a fictional god is still somehow seen as a virtue.

What they share is belief in belief.

Which in fact they probably do also share with a good many non-religious, who miss the comfort provided by a religion they no longer believe in. They use “church-going” as a synonym for “morally upstanding”, and so on.

It’s a flimsy connection for two opposing faiths to find with each other, and still fails to exclude the godless in the way they really want to.

(h/t Atheist Revolution)

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