Crimes Against Liberty

Last night it came up in a podcast conversation (on the show of Travis Simmons aka The Big Funny – look him up!) what the real crime of slavery is.

To me there’s no doubt: you can talk about physical strictures like hobbling (where legs were broken and allowed to heal crooked to prevent runaways)  and those doubtless affected mind as well as body, but the worst crimes perpetuated against the enslaved has to be the intellectual hobbling that made them think of themselves as slaves.

Hobbling broke the legs of slaves so they couldn’t run; the greater crime was breaking their minds so they didn’t want to.

Why was it greater? Because Lamarck to the contrary, broken legs don’t perpetuate from generation to generation. Broken minds do. There are young black people today who believe either explicitly or implicitly that they are inferior to white people, and there are white people who believe the obverse.  The former won’t believe in themselves and won’t achieve all they could, and the latter won’t learn what they could from anyone with a supposedly inappropriate skin tone.

It was literally illegal to teach slaves to read at one time. Had those laws been followed perfectly we would never have known the wisdom of Frederick Douglass. Who knows how many other enslaved people with enslaved minds might have freed themselves if they had been allowed to think properly, with the tools of literacy and numeracy?

The same arguments apply to women, to admittedly a lesser degree. (Black women got a double whammy of course.) They were forbidden from higher education by statute. What possible reason could there be for that? The only real reason would seem to be that men didn’t want the competition.

Today there are opportunities for personal education that exceed both in kind and arguably in quality any educational structures in the past. To fail to educate yourself is at least arguably a crime against your society, an abdication of duty tantamount to treason.

If you love freedom, if you care about liberty… Learn. Vote.

The American political system is broken, but at least arguably not beyond repair.

Posted in Activism, Difference-making, United States | 1 Comment

2014 Atheist Alliance of America Conference

I attended the 2014 Atheist Alliance of America Conference in Seattle, Washington from Thursday 7 August to Sunday 10 August. I found the conference productive, educational and enjoyable.
AAA Con 2014
Other than simply being a regular attendee I was filling a few special roles; I was Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry’s Affiliate Council representative, I was the Secretary to AAA’s Board of Directors, and I was the incoming editor of Secular Nation magazine.

Secular Nation magazine

Secular Nation magazine

As a lesson learned at this conference, let me say that while they may seem awkward and vaguely silly at first, Robert’s Rules of Order absolutely *rock* for keeping a meeting efficiently on point. Several of the Affiliate representatives had been at prior Council meetings and remarked to me afterward that they’d never seen one proceed so smoothly.

The remainder of the conference was largely devoted to learning and networking, apart from an Affiliate Council strategy session. The speakers were all as amazing as I’d expected them to be. The only small sad disappointment was the absence of Horus Gilgamesh, who had been sent a death threat and who decided that it wasn’t worth it to forge ahead, partly for his own safety and to spare his family worry but also so that the conference would not have to bear extra security costs and other attendees would not be put in danger. In solidarity just about every attendee wore stickers on our ID badges saying “Hello, my name is Horus Gilgamesh!” – a gesture that he has conveyed was deeply appreciated.

"Hello, my name is Horus Gilgamesh!"

“Hello, my name is Horus Gilgamesh!”

Rebecca Vitsmun was the first main speaker on Friday, and her speech was both emotionally moving and a great example of using an emotional impetus to achieve very practical orgainzational ends. She didn’t simply embarrass Wolf Blitzer by failing to be a theist after a tornado wiped out her town, she set about working with Foundation Beyond Belief to set up a genuinely useful infrastructure to allow on both a local and national level for humanists to respond effectively to natural disasters.

In the first breakout session I chose to attend Mynga Futrell’s presentation on “Seeking Influence in Public Schools: A Strategy For Atheists” in which she provided me with a better understanding of how the curricula and textbooks are determined for public schools. The textbooks are mainly determined by four states, California, Texas, Florida, and New York, but there is ample opportunity for affecting curricula at the State and school board level, and she offered some examples of how she’d gotten small but important changes made, often by working in coalition with minority religious groups (Jewish and Muslim, mostly), and some advice on framing issues in ways most likely to be seen as positive and nonthreatening to the Christian majority.

Bob Seidensticker, author of the novel Cross Examined and the eponymous blog, spoke after lunch giving a whirlwind tour of the counter-apologetics he specializes in. Pretty much all of the arguments he deconstructed are covered by the characters in the novel, which I recommend. (I fetched my copy from home and he graciously signed it “Bob Seidensticker, or possibly Horus Gilgamesh!”)
books signed
In the afternoon breakout session I attended the presentation by August Brunsman, of the Secular Student Alliance, one of the success stories in the modern freethought movement. August gave us a picture of how rapidly the SSA has grown, identified the balance between allowing local SSA leaders to tune the program for their own environs and providing solid, standardized support methods to them. He told us about additional SSA-sponsored programs like Secular Safe Space providing a nonthreatening place for students to express doubt, and told us about the training programs SSA offers faculty and other interested non-student adults to enable them. He also spoke of the relative difficulties SSA has had moving down the educational ladder from colleges to high schools, with the lesser levels of autonomy available to students at those levels, and about how SSA is trying to bring in more parental involvement at those levels to compensate.

August Brunsman & I

August Brunsman & I

The final work session of the day was Affiliate Strategic Planning, in which we used brainstorming and mind mapping techniques to get some idea of where AAA would like to go for and with affiliates, as well as clarifying what representatives of the Affiliate Council saw as their proper relationship to the Board of Directors. An unofficial post-session developed out of that meeting for myself and AAA consultant Richard Haynes with valuable insights into practical aspects of both best-practice bylaw writing and producing a viable print magazine being offered by affiliate Brian Allen; we decided that we’d skip the movie in order to continue discussion and develop ideas.

Friday evening wound up with Comedy Night, which was hilarious (especially Ian Harris, who I’d frankly never heard of before but who is a complete riot), followed by an after-party at which I ended up imbibing entirely too much ethanol.

As a result on Saturday I was not running on all cylinders, but I managed to at least be present for Steve Hill’s sharing of the intersectionality of being in racial, religious, and class  inorities, and Amanda Metskas’ explication of the Secular Coalition for America’s workings. (I also recorded them for later perusal, as I did all the presentations I attended.)

After lunch Brother Richard Haynes presented on developing online freethinking communities, in which he made what I thought were some very cogent points, especially about being willing to tolerate atheist voices that differ from our own (S.E. Cupp and Bill Maher both being used as examples) and being willing to forgive and move on when one of our own screws up. (There may be some self-interest there though, as Brother Richard confessed that he actively encouraged Richard Dawkins to Tweet more!)

Then there was the presentation I’d been agog for; I am a *major* Steven Pinker fan! He is an even bigger intellectual hero to me than the aforementioned Richard Dawkins, even if he’s less popular in the world at large, and he did not disappoint as he clearly and precisely laid out the reasons why religious beliefs were plausible and cogent evolutionary survival stratagems or at least exaptations, and why the
alternate explanations based on religious ideas being factually true did not hold water at all. His points were pellucid, beautifully organized, and compelling. In the Q&A afterward he was poised, thoughtful, and interesting in his elaborations.

Yes, I want to be like Steven Pinker if I ever grow up… and I was first in line to get my books signed! We had a few minutes to chat and as I told him, his books are not only intellectually heavy but physically heavy, yet it was well worth the lug. As he started to sign them he laughed and asked me “Is your name really Horus Gilgamesh?” So I had to explain… :)

(I did have to skip the Richard Carrier debate, as I desperately need ad more sleep by this point; I am a third shift worker! Richard’s a friend, so he accepted my excuses! By the way, if we have him as a speaker for SHL at any time we get $25 off his normal honorarium.)

Pinker, Goldstein, Murtagh

Steven Pinker, Rebecca Goldstein, Brian Murtagh, and Lucy’s (replica!) skull.

In the evening of course was the Richard Dawkins Award, which this year went to Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (whose husband is Steven Pinker, so he was kind of a freebie! When Amy introduced him she rattled off an amazing long list of the awards he’s received, and Dr. Pinker pointed out that she’d missed one very important one; he was last year’s recipient of the same award his wafe received this year!).

She gave an acceptance speech which seemed very much off the cuff, speaking of her upbringing in an Orthodox Jewish family where it was questioned whether even her speaking voice should be kept silent – but as casual and informal as her acceptance was it remained cadenced and interesting throughout. Afterward I made sure to get up to be first in line to get her books signed as well, and ended up enjoying a multi-way conversation with her for the better part of an hour, and she is a *fantastic* conversationalist! When we did finally get around to geting the books signed, she looked at my name tag and said, “Is your name really Horus Gilgamesh?”

The wrap-up the following day was a trip to Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery, Snoqualmie Falls, and Boehm Choclaterie, and it was lovely indeed, socializing in congenial environs with my fellow freethinkers (and getting extra wine samples in because the pourer used to live in my home town back in England, Banbury). I even made some possible arrangements for future Secular Nation articles, and an exchange program between SN and our sister magazine of the Atheist Alliance International, Secular World.

At the Ste Michelle Winery

At the Ste Michelle Winery

As I said, productive, educational, and enjoyable!

Posted in Activism, atheism, Difference-making, Education, Secularism | 2 Comments

How do we stay outraged?

I have a number of friends who seem to find my general level of outrage just the teensiest bit risible.

I can understand why, in a way. Certainly I get tired of it myself. Sometimes I think wistfully of just ceasing to give a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut. It would be restful to be able to just sit there and watch the little fried treat roll right on past me. If nothing else, I could relax secure in the knowledge that there will be another along in a minute.

I recently posted a piece about the aftermath of the Elliot Rodgers incident, more specifically about the pervasive unacknowledged misogyny in American culture it had brought to light. I had actually written it a few weeks earlier but I wrote it for a print magazine, and wanted to wait to share it until after its publication there. I gambled that the outrage over the American media’s failure to address the plain and obvious cause of the mass killing would still be around, after the initial shock of the killing itself had faded.

I lost that gamble, of course. It was not the first time I’d overestimated the attention span of America.
I’m an optimist like that. I keep thinking this one, this incident, will be the one that gets a sustained response. That we will finally be tipped over into reacting with sanity, into doing something.
It’s hard to hold on to that kind of optimism, especially as it pertains to shootings. America seems to have an infinite capacity to absorb gun-related tragedies.

Columbine High wasn’t enough, Sandy Hook Elementary wasn’t enough, North Panola High, Sparks Middle, Arapahoe High, Raytown Academy, East English Village Preparatory, St. Mary Catholic School, Provo High, Reynolds High… weren’t enough to persuade us as a country to so much as reduce the number of bullets a shooter can spray schoolchildren with between reloading. Those aren’t even close to all the shootings just in schools, I only included K-12 schools where there were multiple fatalities.

Every time one of them happens, I hear the same stupid disingenuous arguments: if only there had been good people with guns around (because everyone who watches the movies knows that the good guys always hit the exact target they aim at while rolling and dodging bullets in the middle of the firefight, while simultaneously preventing the bad guys from getting a clear shot at anything), hammers kill people as much as guns do (yet somehow I suspect compromise legislation restricting guns while allowing unlimited hammers wouldn’t satisfy the people who make this dishonest comparison), it’s necessary to keep the government at bay (when the government is the only group that has the gun enthusiasts overwhelmingly outgunned), any infringement on the holy right to bear arms is blackest tyranny (even measured like serialized ammunition that would have no effect whatever other than to help solve gun crimes after the fact), et cetera et cetera et nauseating cetera.

I’ve written pieces on sensible gun control before, and nothing ever changes with respect to gun control, so when I wrote about Trayvon Martin, I focused specifically on the insanity of the so-called Stand Your Ground laws and their inherent susceptibility to abuse through uneven application. Over the Elliot Rodgers killing spree, I thought it more potentially helpful (or at least interesting) to focus on the motive of the shooter, and the pervasive misogyny that goes far too unremarked in our culture, and that too is fading into the background.

When I sat down to write this piece, which was going to be about the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, I thought I might do something similar with a focus on the particular danger of police being allowed so much leeway to gun people down, especially young black men. I thought I might suggest ways in which the police can be made more accountable, such as by requiring that they be outfitted with continuously running video recorders on their persons and in their patrol cars – after all, the government keeps telling us that if we’re doing nothing wrong we shouldn’t fear the Panopticon, so surely that must apply equally to the police with the special levels of privilege and presumption of veracity we routinely grant them.

As I began actually thinking it through, though, I realized that the question I really wanted to ask is the one in the title; how do we stop this from being just one more tragedy, one more injustice, given its fifteen minutes of fame and then forgotten, like Oscar Grant of Oakland, or Duane Brown of New York City, or Aaron Campbell of Portland, or Stephon Watts of Chicago, or Manuel Loggins of San Clemente, or Timothy Russel of Cleveland, or Kendrec McDade of Pasadena, or Dante Price of Dayton, or who the hell knows how many others.

All those cases are of unarmed men shot dead by police under circumstances at least sketchy enough to raise serious questions of why, in a variety of cities across the entire nation; some of them very likely may have been understandable mistakes, but when it’s that easy to come up with a list of sketchy shootings it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there’s a systemic problem that we ought to be looking into ways to mitigate.

They were all seen as baffling, enraging travesties in the news coverage of the time, and it took me only a few minutes of Internet searching to find them, and at best a few of the names might be vaguely familiar. How do we keep our national attention on Michael Brown of St. Louis (or Ezell Ford of Los Angeles, another even more recent case), long enough to DO something?

How do we stay outraged? Can we, even?
I’m feeling a bit less optimistic this time.

Posted in current events, government, Guns, Law, Politics, United States | 6 Comments

#YesAllWomen See A Problem #NotAllMen Do

(This story first appeared in Secular Nation magazine.)

On the night of 23 May 2014, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger went on a massacre in Santa Barbara that left six people dead and seven injured.

The question is, why did he do it? If you make a habit of reading news from other countries and followed the story from there, you’ll have been given the answer almost as soon as it happened. If you only follow the US news, you’ll have to have sorted through the facts, including some that you simply won’t find in almost all of the traditional US news media, or for that matter most of the online sources that have begun to supplant them.

Elliot Rodger killed and injured those people because he was virulently misogynistic. He hated all women with a bone-deep seething hatred, especially but not limited to the women he found most sexually attractive. There are naturally all kinds of factors in the case, as in any human situation, but there is absolutely no question that that was his primary motive; it is staggeringly, stunningly obvious from the facts.

The problem is, the US media almost universally ignored that obvious fact, and in many cases still are. They went through incredible contortions to try and find some other explanation, to find some skewed psychology that would allow the possibility of his motivation being primarily racism (he was in fact a racist as well, but that was not his primary motivation), or a disease of the brain, or even (by Fox News, always first to the bottom) repressed homosexuality. It’s all nonsense; we know why he did it because the killer himself told us, with heated passion and in great detail, in a variety of media, exactly why.

Shortly before starting his killing spree Rodger had uploaded a video to YouTube entitled “Retribution”. In this video Rodger said he was going to prove himself the ultimate “alpha male” and take revenge on all the “sluts” who had sexually rejected him:

            “Tomorrow is the day of retribution, the day in which I will have my revenge. […] On the day of retribution, I am going to enter the hottest sorority house of UCSB [University of California, Santa Barbara], and I will slaughter every single spoiled, stuck-up, blonde slut I see inside of there. All of those girls that I’ve desired so much. They would have all rejected me and looked down upon me as an inferior man if I ever made a sexual advance towards them. While they throw themselves at these obnoxious brutes. I’ll take great pleasure in slaughtering all of you. You will finally see that I am in truth the superior one, the true Alpha Male.”

Prior to that Rodgers mailed a 140-page autobiography/manifesto to various media outlets, including the New York Times. Here is a sample:

            “I concluded that women are flawed. There is something mentally wrong with the way their brains are wired, as if they haven’t evolved from animal-like thinking. They are incapable of reason or thinking rationally. They are like animals, completely controlled by their primal, depraved emotions and impulses. That is why they are attracted to barbaric, wild, beast-like men. They are beasts themselves. Beasts should not be able to have any rights in a civilized society. If their wickedness is not contained, the whole of humanity will be held back from advancement to a more civilized state. Women should not have the right to choose who to mate with. That choice should be made for them by civilized men of intelligence. If women had the freedom to choose which men to mate with, like they do today, they would breed with stupid, degenerate men, which would only produce stupid, degenerate offspring. This in turn would hinder the advancement of humanity. Not only hinder it, but devolve humanity completely. Women are like a plague that must be quarantined.”

Prior to *that* he was an active participant on various misogynistic Internet forums, primarily one called PUAHate. There he said things like this:

“One day incels will realize their true strength and numbers, and will overthrow this oppressive feminist system.”

“Start envisioning a world where WOMEN FEAR YOU.”

“Every male should read the posts here so that they can be awakened. There are too many delusional males worshipping women who would only spit in their faces.”

A quick primer: MRA stands for Men’s Rights Advocate, a misogynistic anti-feminist online community. PUA is Pick-Up Artist, a somewhat overlapping group who claim to know many psychological tricks for hoodwinking women into having sex with them. Incel means involuntary celibate, a man who can’t get women to have sex with him. PUAHate is a collection of MRA incels who resent PUAs for supposedly ‘stealing’ the women who otherwise would have slept with them. The overall attitude is that women are not regarded as individual human beings but as faulty sex dispensing devices that put out for the wrong men, i.e. not the incels.

Now, is it so that Rodgers had other issues? Certainly. He was narcissistic, racist, deeply unrealistic, and may have had a mild form of autistic spectrum disorder. All that fed into his malignant personality, no doubt; his narcissism (his autobiography/manifesto is full of bragging about his high IQ), magical thinking (he felt cheated every time he failed to win a large lottery prize), and lack of social skills (which may or may not have been Asperger’s syndrome) were contributing factors to his frustrated rage against women, and his racism partially directed it (he was obsessed with blond hair, and became particularly enraged when he saw women he desired dating “nonwhite” males – though partly Asian himself he identified as white).

Nevertheless the overwhelming cause of his actions, so overwhelming that I’d argue you would not be missing anything significant by considering it the sole cause, was his misogyny, and despite the peculiar and infuriating reluctance of the US media to acknowledge it that is the plain truth.

As that truth has become increasingly unavoidable, the predictable and to an extent understandable reaction by many men has been summed up in the Twitter hashtag #NotAllMen. Not all men are like that, not all men hate women, not all men see women as sex-dispensing objects. That is true, and I doubt that you can find a single woman who will deny it. The *defensiveness* of that hashtag is the key to understanding the larger issue beyond the specific tragedy of Elliot Rodger though, and the reason for that defensiveness is the very reason why the US media didn’t want to acknowledge misogyny as the ovious cause of that tragedy.

That defensiveness arises because, as the responding hashtag #YesAllWomen demonstrates with heartbreaking thoroughness, those attitudes are ingrained into our culture to an appalling extent. The MRA subculture is an extreme fringe, Elliot Rodger was an extreme member even there… but those attitudes aren’t nearly as extreme as we’d like to pretend, and some level of them pervade just about everywhere, to such an extent we’ve largely blinded ourselves to their ubiquity. Women are constantly treated as mere sexual playthings, constantly considered less worthy of attention and respect than men, constantly made to feel vulnerable in both physical and social ways, constantly dismissed and belittled and ignored.

I can’t express the extent of the problem here. Go on Twitter and search the hashtag #YesAllWomen. If you do, then even if you are relatively aware of the problem the chances are you will be astonished by how many ways that pervasive set of attitudes is expressed, and by how many of them you have seen again and again and never made the connection, simply because the problem is so ubiquitous it fades into background noise.

If you are a man, especially one who considers himself a good man who doesn’t think that way, resist the temptation to simply block with a reflexive #NotAllMen. Of course not all of us are like Rodger, or even like the resentful self-involved MRA subculture he came out of… but his deadly hatred did grow out of that culture, which does exist, and that culture survives and thrives because of the general background of outdated attitudes that it concentrates and intensified. Ignoring it won’t make it go away. Catching violent extremists like Rodger won’t eliminate it, even disrupting the cesspools of the MRA and PUA cultures won’t do the whole job. The culture of patriarchy is pervasive, and it’ll take standing up against stereotypes, not tolerating dismissive and insulting jokes, being consciously fair, and a trillion other small actions.

Paying attention to a problem is the first step in fixing it. These attitudes have largely grown out of a cultural heritage dominated by religions that aggrandize men and diminish women at every level; they are not rational attitudes that enlightened people should want to tolerate in their culture.

#YesAllWomen share a problem. #NotAllMen are willing to make it their problem too, but men who are rationalists and humanists should. Let’s do it, #AllGoodHumans.

Posted in Activism, atheism, current events, Difference-making, Sexuality, United States | 2 Comments

Social Justice Warrior? Sure! I’ll take that.

It bemuses me to see people in the atheist community casting the phrase “social justice warrior” as an epithet. I don’t think it’s all that common for people to think social justice is a bad thing. I don’t think there are even that many who think it happens all on its own, without anyone fighting for it.

Seriously, it’s a bad thing to fight for social justice? When did that happen? Or is it just bad for atheists to do it as part of a community of other atheists?

I know there are atheists who aren’t concerned with being part of a movement, or with forming communities with other atheists. I can totally understand that; it doesn’t match my set of priorities, but mine aren’t everyone’s. “I’m an atheist, and that’s all there is to it.” It’s a perfectly logical, self-consistent position; atheism per se is only a statement of belief about what is, not what ought to be. The people who used to puzzle me are the *militant* dictionary atheists, insisting that you’re not allowed to care about anything else and get together in a community of other atheists to do stuff together about those other things.

I came across a lot of those during the attempt to launch Atheism+, which wasn’t so much stillborn as it was beaten to death in its receiving blanket. It puzzled me that people were so violently opposed to the idea of a group of people who cared about atheism plus other things of a social justice nature calling themselves Atheism+. Sure, it is a pairing that sort of has a label already, secular humanism, but that label wasn’t doing all that the proponents of A+ wanted it to do; it didn’t sufficiently encapsulate the importance of the non-faith-based motivations of the group for one thing. Since theists can also be both secular and humanist it’s a very soft label, secular humanism, and that’s okay for some purposes but not for others. A+ was just a branding for the people who wanted to promote social justice and make their atheism clear as well.

A certain segment of atheists got downright angry, waving their dictionaries and shouting angrily that the pairing would somehow “dilute the meaning of atheism” by giving people the idea that caring about social issues was part of atheism. It seemed to me a ridiculous argument then and it still does. It’s not that hard to figure out that “atheism plus” means there’s something besides atheism in there, and frankly with the amount of time we spend explaining that atheism doesn’t involve worshipping Satan or wild debauched parties catered by raiding the local daycare center for meat, persuading people that we aren’t about being *nice* either is and was the least of my worries.

It’s become clearer over the years since that virtually no one actually was that passionately concerned about that horrible possibility of the word atheism being diluted. A very few might have genuinely thought there was a possibility of confusion, but those weren’t the angry ones. Rather, it was mostly about a very vocal segment who were opposed to one very specific type of social justice, feminism. Almost every one of those militant dictionary atheists later turned out to hold some sexist attitudes. A few more were simply caught up in the drama of it all and some simply subsumed the actual issues into personality clashes, but the overlap between the most vicious opponents of A+ and the membership of misogynist sites made for a pretty strong correlation, and in the penumbra of that were people who aren’t actually misogynist per se but simply don’t think that sexual equality issues are very important at all. That’s how I see it, anyway; I’m hard pressed to think of any feminist activists who were strongly opposed to A+.

That same crowd seem to be the ones who regard the phrase “social justice warrior” as an insult, and again the particular form of social justice that raises their hackles is feminism; they tend to be out and out misogynists like TJ “The Amazing Atheist” Kincaid, or people who consider sexism (at least in the Western world) as a trivial and unimportant problem that doesn’t need much if any addressing, one saddening example being Richard “Dear Muslima” Dawkins.

Maybe there are some who think, as many a religion teaches, that the moral arc of the universe automatically bends toward justice without any effort required on its behalf, that the zeitgeist just naturally moves that way because there’s a destiny that compels it to, but even then it would be hard to argue that actively trying to make things better is going to slow that process down, or that speeding it up is a bad thing. Even the fatalist who thinks all such efforts are futile has no reason to become angry or oppose the effort.

It isn’t a logical or rational thing to rail against people who are trying to make the world better. If you oppose the “social justice warriors” in that attempt, the only reasons I can think of to do so (feel free to suggest others) are that you are not being logical and rational, or that you think the methodology is so wrong as to be counterproductive to that end, or that you don’t actually agree on what constitutes a better world. I suspect that latter category is a well-populated one; it certainly seems that most of the people who have used the phrase “social justice warrior” derogatively are pretty damned comfortable with the status quo, or are profiting mightily by sucking up to those who are.

As for me, I am pretty damned comfortable in the world too. Other than not being Christian and not being born wealthy, I have all the characteristics that make getting by in my world easy. I’m not a racial minority, I’m not gay or trans, I’m not a woman, I’m not disabled. I’m a citizen, I speak English as a first language, I’m decently educated, I’m gainfully employed, and of course I’m smart and funny and devilishly handsome. Go me!

I could just kick back and enjoy all that, but I’d rather use my privileged position to help level the playing field for others.

Social Justice Warrior? Sure! I’ll take that.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Press Release


Press release – more info at

The Atheist Alliance of America will be holding their annual conference on August 7-10 in Seattle, Washington this year, at the Doubletree Hotel Seattle Airport, in conjunction with hosting local affiliate Seattle Atheists. The theme will be Humanism in Action. Apart from a little on the spot action (we will be holding a blood drive Saturday!) attendees will hear from a variety of activists.

Educating people is one form of action, of course, and we will have many speakers to that. Headlining that arena Dr. Rebecca Goldstein, author of works like The Mind-Body Problem, Betraying Spinoza, and Plato at the Googleplex, as well as works of fiction such as Properties of Light and 36 Arguments For God, will be accepting the Richard Dawkins Award at the Conference. Also speaking will be her husband and last year’s Dawkins Award winner, Dr. Steven Pinker, famed experimental psychologist and author of hit scientific tomes like The Language Instinct, How The Mind Works, The Blank Slate, and The Stuff Of Thought, and the historical meta-analysis of violence The Better Angels Of Our Nature.

Mynga Futrell has direct knowledge of education and fighting for education issues at every level from elementary school through university, from local to worldwide scales. August Brunsman will share some of the secrets of the success of the Secular Student Alliance. Local activist and national star Sam Mulvey, executive producer of Ask an Atheist, will give insight into organizing successful outreach. Former minister, “Brother Richard” Haynes, President of Atheist Nexus and blogger at Brother Richard’s Life Without Faith, will talk about building nontheist communities and coming out of the atheist closet. His fellow Patheos blogger Bob Seldensticker of Cross Examined will speak on counter-apologetics, offering intellectual critiques of religious arguments. Dr. Richard Carrier, ascendant star of academic analysis of the progress of science in ancient Greece and Rome and author of the recent controversial argument for mythicism On the Historicity of Jesus will offer insights along those lines too!

Ben Blanchard will talk about bringing active humanist help around the world with the Pathfinders Project and Humanist Service Corps. Steve Hill will be spreading his hard-won knowledge of how to have a voice in American politics. Marsha Botzer will share some of her experience as one of the most active organizers for LGBTQ issues in the world. Amanda K. Metskas and Diana Castillo will speak of organizing with the Secular Coalition of America to fight secular issues in law. Rebecca Vitsmun will give her ground level view of humanist action without relying on invisible intangible friends (sorry, Wolf Blitzer!)

With all that convention attendees will need some comic relief, and it will be provided to them. Horus Gilgamesh, author of the very successful and funny Awkward Moments (not found in your average) Children’s Bible, volume 1, will be speaking and introducing volume 2. The convention will also feature not one but two highly regarded atheist stand-up comedy acts, Ian Simmons and Travis “The Big Funny” Simmons, to bring the laughs.

The conference will very much be a family friendly event, with fun and exciting activities for kids as well as speakers offering information and views on those issues specific to secular (and mixed) families. Atheist Alliance of America is a family itself, a democratic atheist organization of democratic atheist organizations, and workshops will held to help member societies thrive and expand.

We hope to see you in Seattle!

Doubletree Hotel Seattle Airport, 18740 International Blvd, Seattle, WA 98188

Posted in Activism, atheism | 2 Comments

Peoples and Persons

The problem with people is that they’re made up of persons, and the problem with persons is that they lump into people.

Bill Maher said something on Twitter recently: “Dealing w/ Hamas is like dealing w/ a crazy woman who’s trying to kill u – u can only hold her wrists so long before you have to slap her” I can kind of see what Bill was going for here,  personalizing groups into the mental image of single persons.

It actually works as an analogy a bit better than I suspect Bill would be comfortable with, because you could say the woman Palestine has been abused for decades by the man Israel, and has come to hate him as a result, and when she finally could take no more and hit back Israel first tried to restrain her and then used his superior strength to slap her down. The extended analogy doesn’t make Israel look like a decent guy defending himself against a crazy woman, but a domestic abuser picking on a woman a fraction his size. 

As an individual Bill Maher has said some stuff that makes it seem likely that he doesn’t hold women in especially high esteem, and does not consider domestic violence against women a high priority among the things he would battle. That makes the other half of the joke, the trivializing of domestic violence, at least as problematic as his view of the politics.

Both are important issues, but not directly what I have on my mind tonight. To lead into that, I’ll mention that a Facebook friend of mine who “always endorsed embracing the word ‘atheist’ to remove the stigma” now hesitates because “thanks to some of the Big Names ‘atheist’ is taking on the stench of sociopathy, misogyny, and Ayn Rand fundamentalism.” He’s not alone, either; FFS, PZ Myers expressed similar sentiments! When PZ Myers hesitates to identify as an atheist, even in jest…

I’m an atheist. I’m also a secular humanist, a skeptic, a non-theist and nonbeliever and all manner of other synonyms and near-synonyms, but amongst that set “atheist” is the label I most readily apply to myself. I do so because there is bad shit going on in this world I care about, a large part of which is related to religion, and there is a subset of that stuff I feel I can affect strongly on a personal basis, almost all of which is related to religion. Religion is the #1 evil that I feel I can do something efective about, so I label myself accordingly: I am atheist, and even anti-theist if you want to investigate further.

Does that mean I necessarily agree with Bill Maher as he expressed himself in that tweet? Fuck no, that’s not even a smart question. I think Bill laid a complete fucking mind-turd with that tweet.  I don’t agree with Bill because I’m ‘white’ or male or straight or cis or usually vote Democrat. It depends on what he says, and when he says shit that is in my view stupid I call him on it, just as I do for Richard Dawkins or anyone else who shares a constellation of random demographic characteristics with me.

I mention Richard Dawkins because a YouTuber named Jaclyn Glenn just released a video that trashed atheists who are also feminists, with particular emphasis on a largely defunct group associated with the labels Atheism+ or A+. Richard Dawkins, a man I consider an intellectual hero in many respects, has an in my view irrational disdain for that group, and called Glenn’s sophomoric straw-manning video “brilliant” in a tweet:

@RichardDawkins : If you take offence at ‘s latest brilliant video you may be getting something wrong.

I responded that with all due respect it was also possible that if Dr. Dawkins thought @JaclynGlenn’s video was brilliant it might be Dr. Dawkins who was getting something wrong. I think he is, but I do still hold a great deal of entirely due respect for the man.

I am not the least bit ashamed to share the label “atheist” with Dr. Dawkins simply because I think he’s wrong here, or with Mr. Maher for his remarks, or with either of them because I think those remarks are representative of attitudes I think those men hold which I find abhorrent.  They are wrong *in those attitudes* and I’ll continue to call them out on them, but the men who unfortunately hold them are still men I admire for the good they’ve done (Dawkins more than Maher – sorry, Bill, not even a contest).

I’m also, incidentally, not ashamed to claim the affiliation “American” even though I have to legitimately share it with the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin and Louis Gohmert and any number of other horrible Americans. That’s because I don’t actually belong to the same America they do. Theirs is strictly tribal, mine is ideational.

Unlike most people I had a choice of  nationalities, US, UK, Ireland, and Japan. I chose the USA as my primary nationality (I still keep Irish as a backup) for reasons having nothing to do with borders or bloodlines; in fact, it was the very fact that America was founded on ideas that made me want to be American.

I chose to be American from my options because it was a nationality based on ideas of free speech, free conscience, rule of law and not men, and all that jazz. America has all too often failed to live up to those ideals, but as a citizen I keep trying to turn it the way I see as right (and I don’t quit easily, friends).

It’s a fluke that I’m entitled to citizenship in any given nation. Every one of them is down to stuff my parents or remoter ancestors did, not me. It’d be absurd to take pride in being Irish because my ancestors were, or British because Ireland was under the British when my parents were born, or American just because they chose to emigrate, or Japanese because America got in a stupid war and my parents were based there during it.

We all make up tribes and nations, but we mustn’t allow the tribes and nations we are part of to be all of us. You and I can and should object to things our countries do, if those things offend our consciences. “America” does not do this, “Israel” does not do that, except as we allow it to happen.

I’m not telling you what to do, in the particular or even the general. I’m imploring you not to let the tide sweep you, to not let your stances and actions be determined only by the collective nouns you belong to, and especially not by the collective nouns you didn’t even choose for yourself.

As I end this rant I’m aware that I may have offended some of my many fans, or even both of you. If that is the case I invite you to persuade me to change my mind.

Posted in current events, musings, Personal | 3 Comments

Brief Encounter In the Supermarket

Atheisterine teeI was in my local Publix buying a few carbonated beverages for the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry picnic tomorrow, and I was wearing one of my atheist t-shirts. (If you see me in pubilc there’s about a 50% chance I’m wearing an atheist-themed t-shirt.)

A lady stopped me to ask to read it, so I turned and gave her time. She looked like an elegant grandmother, smartly dressed, and was wearing a crystal-covered crucifix. The t-shirt I was wearing was my “Atheisterine” tee which is one of my more assertive ones.

She looked me in the eye very directly and asked “Is that what you really believe?” I looked back as directly, gave my most winning smile and told her yes, ma’am, it certainly is.

She then asked if I was willing to talk for a moment. I have the day free so I said I’d be delighted and pulled my shopping cart over to where we wouldn’t be in the way.

(At this point I’m reporting the conversation as best I remember it; it obviously isn’t verbatim, but should be pretty close.)

“I’m a nurse,” she began, “and I look after a lot of dying people. Most of the believers get even more fervent, some of the agnostics do finally make a decision, and the atheists…”

(At this point I thought I knew what was coming, but she threw me a curveball.)

“… well, they’re no more or less frightened than anybody, but I don’t know what to say to them that would be a comfort and not an insult, and they have enough on their plate without me asking at that point. So tell me, what do you hope for, after you die?”

I told her “I don’t expect to exist after I die, I’ll be over. There are many people I love, and more that I like, and a world full of people I don’t know but who are just trying to get along like I am, who will still be here then though, and I hope I’ll have left a world for them that’s a little better because I was in it.”

She visibly pondered this a moment, then said “So you’ll be satisfied with being over and gone forever, if you’ve done your best for the ones you leave behind? Even though you won’t be there in any way to see them or still love them?”

I said “Yes, I love them now, and when I die as we all do I’ll be happy if I think that I’ve lived well while I was here and left a legacy that’s positive behind me.”

She said, “You’re a moral person. I wish there was more of that kind of thinking among religious people. So many of them get caught up in the rules, obeying the rules, arguing about the rules, splitting themselves up into little splinters over tiny differences. You’re just a normal, nice person. Thank you for talking to me, I think it’ll help me when I’m talking to my patients.”

I then told her about the SHL picnic and told her there would be lots of nice normal godless people there, and invited her to stop by. I doubt she will, but it was such a positive and agreeable conversation I thought I’d share it.

Posted in atheism, Personal | 4 Comments

Friday fiblet: Fidelity

Her finger moved across his eyebrow. Most of the hairs were smooth, black, resilient: a few stood rough, orange, wiry. She treasured the contrast. She moved up to press her lips there, her soft sweet mouth against…

A mirror. A flat, cold mirror.

Cold panic swelled her breast, then she recovered. She caressed him with her eyes and voice.


He was frozen, lost. Static.

Universal coldness briefly clasped her. Then letters formed above his head:

“I LOve” < carrier lost >

It was enough. Pulling a deep breath past her aching throat, she began.

“I know this will reach you, love…”

Posted in fiblet, fiction, Writing | Leave a comment

Appropriate Timing

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of my father’s death, a man who taught me more about love, community, and accepting responsibility than just about anyone.
James Murtagh
Coincidentally, today I received confirmation by the American Humanist Association of their endorsement of me as a Humanist Celebrant. For those not familiar with the term, it is legally equivalent to becoming a clergyperson. I will be conducting weddings, child namings, and memorial services in the same way but without reference to the supernatural.

My father was a religious man, a Catholic, and had plans before meeting my mother to become a priest. Although we didn’t agree on metaphysics we did on the need for human connection, for celebrating life’s passages in community.

I miss my father and love his memory still. I think he would have been proud of me today.

Posted in Personal | 2 Comments