Background Probability

The Agnostic Popular Front has moved to its new home at Skeptic Ink, and will henceforth be known as Background Probability. Despite the relocation and rebranding, we will continue to spew the same low-fidelity high-quality bullshit that you've come to expect.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Farewell to the Agnostic Popular Front

I'm shutting down the APF blog, for now, for very good reasons . I was never much of an agnostic, none too popular, and never part of a front. Really, I just liked the sound of the name, as an homage to a certain punk band and a certain band of Judean revolutionaries.

If you're wondering whether I've been run off by vicious trolls, fear not! Soon I'll be blogging under a new name and on a new platform. Details forthcoming later this week.

[Later that week...]

I have moved to my new home online at

It will be way more exciting than this old blog, because I'm way more excited about it. Also, I'll have a variety of interesting people off of which to bounce various uninteresting ideas. Not to mention that Wordpress totally kicks ass. Hope to see you over there!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Bible belt redux, redux

Map data 2010, via NYT

In light of the Romney campaign's most recent attempt to shoot itself in the foot (after putting its foot firmly in its mouth) we have these income tax data nicely illustrated for us by the New York Times. Does this map remind you of anything you might have seen before?

Granted the overlap isn't nearly perfect, but either way you've got pretty much of the Old South in there, and most importantly, Florida. Does Romney think he can win without Florida?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Updated comment policy

It's been a long time since I've had to deal with an influx of commenters from off-site, so here are the updated rules:

1) Don't be a dick. Attack ideas, not people.

2) No one who has earned an Order of the Molly is allowed to comment under that name.

3) No one calling themselves Justicar or Integralmath is allowed to comment under that name.

4) Real names are vastly more likely to get published. Own your shit.

5) Rules 2-4 exist to protect Rule 1. You don't have to like it.

6) All comments are moderated. If you write something insulting, or boring, or fail to back up claims with facts, your comment might get posted, but don't count on it.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

#AtheismPlus vs. #Skepticism

The founders of A+ have claimed that skepticism will be one of their foundational principles. Let's look at what happens when one of the A+ advocates is challenged to provide facts to back up their paranoid claims:

What I love about this exchange is how fully it recapitulates so many of my experiences talking to A-plussers. 

Me: I am skeptical about some of your claims.
Them: What, you doubt that [given form of bigotry] is real?
Me: No, just this one hyperbolic claim that you made, right here.

Wow, just wow. This right here is why some skeptics doubt whether plussers are a plus to our movement.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Friday Fishbait — Anti-Darwin Fish

It's been awhile since I've posted a fish, but this one was too good to pass up.

Cannot say that I really blame Christians for defacing our logos defacing their Logos. 

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Penultimate post on #AtheismPlus

Okay, yeah, so yesterday's post was a bit inflammatory and I get why some of you think it's just stirring the proverbial shit-pot. What possible point can there be in building a blacklist like that, complete with a mix of allegations spanning the entire spectrum from truth to half-truth to defamation?

Here's the point: Exclusionism is at the heart of the A+ movement. The most fundamental idea of A+ is to purge themselves of misogynists, racists, and other such privilege defenders and deniers, so as to allow others to be more comfortably included. I do not completely disagree with this approach. Some people are so irretrievably damaged (by circumstances quite beyond their control) that their personality has been warped beyond the possibility of learning to empathize with the Other. If someone comes into our spaces using sexist or racist or ableist slurs, we are justified in taking them out. However, we are also justified in talking them down, and I'd much prefer trying that approach first. Sometimes, there is a fundamental misunderstanding that just needs a bit of clearing up.

This latter approach doesn't seem to be much of a live option for the leaders of A+, who are so quick to detect wrongdoing (mostly sexism) that yesterday's list consists primarily of people who are on record for equality of the sexes, but have somehow failed to tow the line on some particular finer point of feminist theory or else failed to agree completely with the hard core of either FtB or Skepchick. In the mind of A+, disagreement with the leadership implies disagreement with their goals and values, which in turn implies some form of incurable bigotry or hatred.

Let me be perfectly clear on this: You can agree wholeheartedly with the goals and values of A+ while disagreeing with the leadership and their execution of the mission. This is so obvious that I shouldn't have to create an analogy, but just for the sake of clarity, consider this: The passengers on the Titanic all agreed with the clearly stated goals and destination of that voyage, but at some point they came to have legitimate doubts about those in charge of the ship.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

#AtheismPlus - A Provisional Blacklist

It's not yet clear whether Atheism+ will turn out to be a growth movement or just another bright flash in the pan, but in the name of progress (the properly progressivist kind of progress) I'm going to propose a list of people who are clearly unworthy of breathing the same air as Greg Laden and thus unfit for the inclusion in this new project. This list will consist of real names only, because Lord only knows (by which I mean no one really knows) who all those hateful anons really are.

This is a living document. If you have more persona non grata (or crimes against the priesthood) to add to the list, please let me know in the comments.

EDIT: Had to promote Kristina Hansen up from the comments section, on account of Ophelia's recent comments. Greetings, fellow FtB readers, and thanks for visiting my humble corner of cyberspace. If you can leave a comment without telling anyone to do unspeakable things to themselves with a porcupine, please have a go. (9/11/2012)

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

10 Commandments of #AtheismPlus

Since we've been in the mood for proposing new rules for the new movement, I've come up with my own list. It's not intended to be serious, unless you really want some of these rules implemented, in which case we can discuss that one seriously. Maybe.

  1. Thou Shalt Have No Gods. Only the lords and ladies of Blog’s Highest Spheres are worthy of worship.
  2. Thou shalt not question the values nor the priesthood of #AtheismPlus, nor retweeth those who do.
  3. Thou shall not bring false jewellery as an offering, nor wear it upon thy bosom; neither shall thou grabbeth the ass.
  4. Thou shall honour thy FtB and thy Skepchick, with one tenth of all thine page-views and mouse-clicks.
  5. Thou shalt not creep, nor shall thou do that which seemeth creepy unto others.
  6. Thou shalt not fail to stick the flounce.
  7. Thou shalt purge the subhuman sewer dwellers, douche-bags, privilege-defenders and misogynists from amongst the congregation.
  8. Thou shalt check thy privilege. If thou contends with one less privileged than thyself, thou shall yield the field posthaste.
  9. Thou shalt always feed the trolls. Everything they say and do is perfectly serious and probably meant as a personal threat.
  10. Kneel before P-Zod. Failing that, at least bow before Blag Hag.

Monday, August 27, 2012

#AtheismPlus, Atheism 2.0, and top-down reform

Just the other day, my lovely wife came home from teaching a group of medical professionals (about sickened penises, but that doesn't come into this story) and she was rather excited to share her thoughts on TED talk from Alain de Botton, which she had listened to on the ride home. After a bit of back-and-forth, I realized that I was more deeply annoyed with de Botton than I could really explain. After a bit more, it hit me that my annoyance with Atheism 2.0 was roughly the same size and shape and flavor as my annoyance with Atheism Plus. When it comes down to it, both of these projects are packed with really good ideas that I'd love to see more atheist groups try out, but I have serious doubts about the value of rebranding and profound reservations about the qualifications of those who have appointed themselves to lead these reformations.

Here is how I'd really like to see it done: Local activists leading the charge, without regard to the brandings and blessings and bromides reigning down from the highest levels of the freethought kyriarchy. Want to give atheists a chance to enjoy church music, as de Botton advises? Don't just preach or write books about it, reserve a table for 30 atheists at Gospel Brunch at the Boom. Want to give atheists a sense of calendar, as de Botton strongly advises? Then key your major group events to the solstices or equinoxes. Do you agree with de Botton that communal meals are a vital part of bonding a community together? Then organize weekly lunches and monthly dinners.

Want to give atheists a chance to show solidarity with the LGBT community, in the spirit of A+? Arrange for them to table at your local Pride Festival, or better yet, march in the parade. Want to give atheists a chance to show solidarity with those being denied civil rights? Pay for tables for atheists at the ACLU banquet, to raise money to defend those rights in court. Want to help out the hungry or the homeless? Then volunteer to do so, or raise money for the cause, or both. Want to fight against theocracy? Organize an annual legislative review and lobby the lawmakers to back off.

The thing is, the amazing members of my local group have already done all these things, we've been doing most of them for years, and we still recognize all sorts of room for improvement. We are actively seeking out new ways to diversify our group in every way, and we exchange ideas with local activist leaders in Ponca City, Stillwater, Lawton, Norman, Edmond, Tulsa, Wichita, Dallas, and even Springfield, MO. We don't need top-level bloggers and bestselling authors telling us how to rebrand and remake our local groups. The grassroots are going to continue to grow from the ground up, regardless of what's happening on the mountaintops.

If all you've done is take to the podium or the keyboard to share your wonderful ideas for reforming the movement, I'm not remotely interested. If you've actually done something, really changed something for the better in your community, then please, do step forward and tell your story. Meanwhile, we've got work to do.

Friday, August 24, 2012

#AtheismPlus - Three major campaigns

“I have reservations about A+ as well. But it hasn't done anything of substance yet.”
I’ve been seeing variations on this comment coming across both my Facebook and Twitter. If I bothered to check on Google+, I’d wager it’s over there as well. To those remarks, my initial reaction is always the same: Where in the ever-living hell have you been?
Wherever it was, it must not have had access to the Freethought Blogs. The leaders of A+ already have at least three relatively successful anti-sexist campaigns under their belts:
  1. Campaign to persuade atheist/humanist/skeptic conferences to implement AHP.
  2. Campaign to smear/replace Grothe and boycott (but mostly girlcott) TAM.
  3. Campaign to remove certain offensive threads from Science Blogs.

These are listed in most to least recent, from most to least beneficent, and from most to least well-known, at least among those I’ve unscientifically surveyed. Of these three campaigns, the Zvan/Laden campaign to drain the slime pits was by far the most authoritarian in its goals (and downright Scientologist in its methods) but also the most successful in the short term. At one point, Greg Laden actually received an ovation from A+ leaders and supporters for his outstanding achievement in the 21st century equivalent of book-burning. Of course, this being 2012 and all, you can't stop the signal, and the threads were quite recently reposted to another server.

The second campaign consisted primarily of an online tarring-and-feathering of DJ Grothe, the man who had previously palled around with leaders of A+ at events such as Skepticon III. I'm guessing he's persona non grata these days. If you didn't see it happening at the time, consider yourself profoundly blessed. As for DJ, I doubt he'll never forget what it was like to be accused of covering up voyeuristic sex crimes.

Finally, there was the campaign to implement anti-harassment policies at our conferences. This was actually a really good idea, even if the execution of the concept often lead to spurious accusations and mutual recrimination. 

Effectiveness and tactics aside, all three of these campaigns were clearly waged by the current leadership of the A+ movement for the sake of furthering the explicit goals of the movement. Let's not have any more utter nonsense about how they haven't done anything yet.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

#AtheismPlus - The Old New Atheism Plus

I was recently reminded that the producers of the Oklahoma Atheists Godcast coined the term “Atheism Plus” a couple years ago, but it meant something totally different back then than it means now. To us, it meant that you start with the idea that gods are made up, and then layer on whatever other values or goals or rituals that you happen to choose for yourself, as a freethinker, unburdened by dogma or hierarchy.
The point of our Atheism Plus series was to hear from atheists about what really drives them. We spoke with the leader of Oklahoma Atheists about Secular Humanism, talked with CJ about scientific skepticism and fighting medical quackery, interviewed a local LaVeyan Satanist, talked to the leader of the Norman Naturalists about the relationship of metaphysical naturalism to atheism, and conversed with a UU minister about how Unitarian Universalism welcomes unbelievers in their congregations. We also did an couple episodes on Communism, but it was more fitted to the book club format than the plus series, because we somehow ran into trouble finding an outspoken Communist in Oklahoma City. I'd also intended to interview an Objectivist, but he kept canceling the interview out of rational self-interest.
Many of these various worldviews are compatible with each other, some not at all, but they are all available paths to those who do not believe in any gods. It behooves us to be aware of them, if only because godless people are more apt to convert between them than revert back into the fold of theism. My point in bringing up this bit of history right now isn't to plug the podcast (now available on iTunes!) but rather to show that the phrase "Atheism Plus" has previously been construed in a broadly inclusivist sense, "atheism plus whatever you personally happen to believe and practice" but is now being used in a totally different way, to indicate "atheism plus whatever an elite few approve of doing and believing - and if you're not with us, you're against us." Call that what you will, but I will never call it freethought.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

#AtheismPlus - Probable Pitfalls of Promoting Progressivism

Okay, so, yesterday's post about A+ wasn't exactly helpful constructive criticism, so I'll try to do better this time. I foresee three major pitfalls in attempting to implement A+, and the only question in my mind is whether these pitfalls will turn out to be roadblocks or merely stumbling blocks along the way.

Mission Dilution, Member Exclusion
There are some things that only atheists can to do for the larger culture, such as clarifying just how harmful and pervasive discrimination against unbelievers continues to be in our society. There are also some things that only atheists can do for each other, such as providing safe spaces for unbelievers to meet up and learn to support each other in the face of bigotry and hostility from the wider culture. Atheism+ seems to require local atheist groups to decide who does not yet have properly progressive political views and who retains too much of the sexism and homophobia with which they were raised, and then find some way to unwelcome them from the group. In extreme cases, such as harassment or intimidation, this rejection would be fully justified, but the risk here is that by creating ideological litmus tests we'd be leaving some out in the cold who are unreconstructed but not beyond repair. Every time this happens, it is a loss to both the group and the individual.

What are atheist membership organizations supposed to do with those who have only just recently thought their way out of theism, but haven't yet adopted (or necessarily even thought about) progressive views on issues of social injustice, sexism, racism, ableism, LGBT inequality, animal abuse, and so forth?  Shall we tell them, “Hey, good job thinking your way out of the theism box, that puts you in a good place to move forward, but until you manage to break free of all these other modes of traditional thinking on your own you aren’t welcome to join our new A+ movement. Here is a suggested reading list,” or something essentially like that? By creating and enforcing an ideological litmus test, local groups would end up rejecting those most in need of being exposed to a community of freethought and gaining the opportunity to think through all of these issues for themselves in dialogue with other freethinkers.
Deep Rifts and the Next Schism
The first pitfall is the possibility of losing our focus on those few issues unique to atheist activism, such as building a safe space for all atheists who are willing to interact civilly and respectfully with one another. The second pitfall is related but distinct: the possibility of creating schisms in our community over each of the new issues we're taking on, and conflicts over the prioritization and sorting thereof. Given the list of issues to hand we can safely expect some bickering over proposed additions to the list and how the list will ultimately be vetted and finalized. Possibly this will all take place on the FtB backchannel, or perhaps fights over issues will be out in the open. Maybe these debates will be cordial and rational, or maybe they will open up newer, deeper rifts between would-be comrades. If past is prologue, I'd expect it to turn nasty at some point. I've already seen more than bit of exclusionist and even eliminationist rhetoric on this topic, just imagine how nasty it will get if it's turned inward.

It's worth noting at this point that one of the most significant differences between earlier secular progressive movements (e.g. Humanism, Ethical Culture, some UU's) and the new A+ is that the former movements are generally older, less combative, more deliberative, and have a reams of tradition and canon to which they can refer in the event of doctrinal disputes. It remains to be seen whether the younger generation of atheist activists, with their famously combative approach to conflict resolution, will prove able to work through internal disputes effectively without any porcupine-related injuries.

Atheist Separatism
Possibly the most worrying aspect of the A+ movement is the suggestion or implication that as religious unbelievers we should consider ourselves capable of fighting against various social ills (e.g. racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, animal abuse, classism, ageism, environmental degradation, lack of access to health care, and unjust drug laws) on our own without partnering with those who care deeply about those issues but don't self-identify as atheists. This might actually work in highly secular societies where the preponderance of progressive thinkers left religion years ago, but here in the U.S. many of the stalwart opponents of discrimination are progressive theists. If we want to affect social change, we need to partner with everyone who effectively supports some given cause, and the most effective groups fighting against various forms of discrimination avoid imposing litmus tests on religious belief or unbelief. Everyone is welcome to join them in their diverse struggles for a better world, whether motivated by religious injunctions to love your neighbor as yourself, or by a Humanistic impulse to do the same.

For a concrete example, consider Americans United for Separation of Church and State. They have been pushing back against systematized religious discrimination for decades, leveraging a broad coalition of liberal Protestants, Catholics, minority faiths, and freethinkers. Our local chapter is diverse in terms of age, gender, and religious belief, united in the mission of keeping the government out of the churches and vice-versa. Sure, most of the most active members are also unbelievers, but not all of them, and our most experienced members are pillars of the interfaith community. Working with them over the years has been a pleasure and an enlightening experience, and you'll find few places where atheists and theists are more apt to strike up friendships and demonstrate mutual respect. This is the model of interfaith/unfaith cooperation which I'd be personally willing to support, but it remains to be seen whether A+ can even begin to operate in this mode.

If the minds behind the A+ movement can manage to avoid losing focus on issues unique to atheism (showing people that gods aren't real and we aren't monsters for saying so), avoid booting people out of the movement who could well have been won over, avoid creating new rifts between people who ought to be allies, and remain open to teaming up with interfaith groups who are working against discrimination and for social justice, then I'll be profoundly impressed. For now, though, I remain agnostic as to whether they will ever demonstrate the interpersonal skills to build a diverse coalition of atheist activists into a true popular front.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

#AtheismPlus - Plus!

I'm as excited as ever to see the community of unbelief engaging in yet another round of rebranding and rescoping itself. Not wanting to be left out in the cold, I've gazed deeply into my navel and come up with my own plan to build up the community using a bold new brand.

Since organized Atheists are the ones leading the charge, we'll put them at the front of the list.

Since atheism is essentially the result of skepticism applied to theism in particular, we'll put Skeptics next in line. Atheists are in an optimal position to learn how to apply critical thinking to all areas of life, having already worked through the more obvious fairy tales.

Lack of belief in god(s) also frees us up to reconceptualize our ethical framework from obeying divine dictates to reasoning for ourselves based on human needs and values. Hence, Secular Humanists must be included in the new big tent.

Finally, we should include the Anti-Theists, who go beyond passive unbelief to put themselves out there, doing the difficult and often thankless work of handing out red pills and freeing minds from the shackles of theistic dogma.

And, in line with the current thinking, we'll put a plus (+) sign at the end to indicate that we can add political causes on to our ever expanding big tent. So the final result will look like this:
Atheists, Skeptics, Secular Humanists, Anti-Theists, PLUS [selected political causes]

or just ASSHAT+ for short.

For SMS and Twitter purposes, it may be shortened even further: 3Þ+

Now, go forth and rebrand! Don't forget to stir up massive internet kerfuffles over which particular political causes are worthy of inclusion as we move forward and purge the non-progressives among from our ranks.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

We've had our fill

I've avoided eating at Chick-fil-A for many years, not so much because they support various anti-gay programs, but because I've never cared for their food. I'm perfectly capable of making a terrible chicken sandwich at home and slathering on just enough mayo not to notice. That said, my personal boycott of Chick-fil-A is fairly meaningless, but my family's boycott of Chick-fil-A is another matter. Because my wife and I have raised our children with positive humanistic ethical values, they know it is wrong to treat gays as second class citizens or send them off to reeducation camps. Chick-fil-A has lost our patronage as a family.

Family, after all, is what this is all about. There are loving families like my own, who are willing to accept our LGBT friends and relatives. There are also hateful families who push them away, threaten them with torture by fire, and try to have them cured. There are the families formed by gay and lesbian couples, and there are the extended families formed by local LGBT communities. The hateful families would prefer for the loving families to give up on phrases such as 'family values' so that they can portray themselves as sole standard-bearers of what it means to be a good and proper family unit.

I'm not having that. My family has values, and our values are vastly better than those being demonstrated and marketed by the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, and all the other right-wing bigotry-peddlers. We don't need a fearful enemy to bond us together as a family, all we need is our love for each other. As a family, we value tolerance, inclusivity, and joy rather than intolerance, exclusivity, and fear. We value our lesbian neighbors, and we think it's adorable that their daughter has a crush on our son. We value my sister-in-law and her partner just as we value my brother-in-law and his wife. We value real people who live and love rather than ancient books filled with death and hate.

As a family, we've had our fill of bigotry, homophobia, and Chick-Fil-A. If that's what you're serving, we won't be showing up.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Final thoughts on #FtBullies

Video: FtBullies and the Freethought Movement

#FtBullies — Too broad a brush?

Some of my favourite Twitter interlocutors have been pointing out that just by using the #FtBullies hash unironically, I'm somehow implying that all of Freethought Blogs has a serious bullying problem, and aligning myself with every single dipshit who attacks the FtB, however spitefully and irrationally. Such broad brush interpretations may be inevitable, because it is not possible to clearly disclaim the intended scope of a 10-character hashtag in less than 130 characters. I'd much rather we had converged on a hashtag which would be most readily interpreted as meaning "Can we please discuss specific abuses of power by the most widely read and respected leaders in the freethought movement, regardless of who they are and how they disseminate their ideas to the public" but even now I cannot think of what that hashtag could have been. Forced brevity can be a harsh mistress.

Let me be abundantly clear about this, most of #FtBloggers aren't #FtBullies, and no one over there has been acting like a bully most of the time. Everyone with power abuses it on occasion, often without meaning to do so, and those with massive audience privilege advantage can be unaware of how much harm they are doing when they publicly shame lower status members of the community or when they encourage or allow various forms of cyberbullying to run rampant in their comment threads.

It has to be noted that while some popular freethought bloggers allow and even encourage piling-on, abusive language, and other bullying tactics, others have taken on the onerous burden of actively preventing their own blogs from hosting that sort of content. Here are a few top-notch examples of bloggers who generally refuse to allow cyberbullies to hijack the discourse on their turf: Daniel Fincke, Kylie Sturgess, Richard CarrierGreta Christina, Chris Hallquist. I do not read everyone else on the network, but I'm confident there are several others who also work hard to prevent substantive discourse from being sidelined by personal attacks, and I can only imagine what a timesuck that must be like for a high volume blog.

The essence of freethought is to be able to judge each proposition for itself, after looking at all sides of the argument. The argument over bullying in the freethought community is multifaceted and should never be oversimplified to the reactionary tribalism of us vs. them. However, if it came to that, I'd have to stand with any blogger who makes a good faith effort to avoid becoming a haven for hatred, regardless of their chosen affiliations or domain name.

This will be my last post on the subject of FtB. I've got other plans for August.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Crommunism and the commentariat

Ian Cromwell broke all of the unwritten rules of Twitter yesterday by patiently explaining his thoughts on a particular issue in some detail, without abbreviation and without barbs:

I have to agree with him on all points here, and so once again the Twitter rules of engagement are breaking down. Particularly,  I must agree that we should not tell other people how to manage their own patch of cyberspace, whether it is a blog, a personal Facebook page, Twitter feed, or what-have-you. To each their own, may they make of it what they will.

However, it must be said that the character of the forum reflects upon the character of the moderators. I used to be very active in an online forum wherein the only rule was "Don't be a dick" and the interpretation of that rule was entirely at moderator discretion. At the same time, I was somewhat active in another forum with essentially no rules of engagement: a place loaded with gun nuts, racist assholes, and unsubtle death threats. Oftentimes some of  same people would behave very differently in the two places, because they each had their own culture and rules of engagement.

Bloggers should not be told how to manage their comment threads, but neither should they expect not to be judged by the character of their commentariat. If you are hosting threads which proudly propagate memes such as "Fuck yourself sideways with a decomposing porcupine" then you may be assumed to have very different goals and values than someone who puts in place a comment moderation policy carefully designed to foster a "constructive, far reaching dialogue and philosophical debate" free from unnecessarily demeaning remarks which generally hamper rather than further substantive debate. 

One final point. As an avid consumer of high-end freethought content, I would much rather attend conferences where I can reasonably expect people will not be verbally harassed and abused, just as I would much rather read online forums where those same expectations will be maintained and enforced.  I'm not in a place to tell conference organizers or bloggers whether or how to create spaces in which a proper balance is struck between free expression and anti-harassment, but as an individual, I can choose not to patronize those who do not even try.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Art of the Five-Finger Down Punch

Thank the gods, I am a tiny cog in the freethought movement. Don't have a significant audience, or an associated blind spot as to what it must be like to go through life without carrying around massive audience privilege like an invisible backpack with protective powers. As a small cog, I am well aware of the disparity in informal social power between those who have a large audience and those who do not. When it comes to power and influence, I'm almost invariably punching up rather than punching down.  This is doubly true when it comes to pursuing (probably pointless) palaver and associated argy-bargy on the internets - which is most likely for the best, because I can be kind of an fuckwad online.

If I somehow attained a much larger audience, I'd have to seriously consider the possibility doing so would burden me with a moral responsibility (rooted in the ethics of secular humanism) to avoid leveraging my newfound audience privilege in an attempt to make those with vastly less of a platform look like fools. I'd be aware that my own message would be widely read and discussed, while answering counterpoints from my target of choice would go relatively unnoticed. Even if I took the effort to link to responses, the odds are good that most of my readership won't be terribly keen on reading opinions that run contrary to those they are used to hearing on my site. Freethinking may be contrary to group-thinking in theory, but certainly not in practice.

All that said, it seems to me that many of the leaders in the movement seem completely oblivious to the inherent imbalance in punching down at those not in a position to answer in kind. Lately, this has become sort of a fashion over at the largest platform in modern freethought, where we've seen posts directed against relative unknowns such as: Bryan PestaStephen Packard, John HemblingKyle Hill, Paula Kirby and Peter Leschak (more to come). No doubt some of them deserved to be called out more than others, and some of them doubtless have somewhat of an audience of their own, but too often all that is accomplished by these 'down-punching' posts is to either feed the trolls or unleash the flying monkeys, rather than provoke a factual or moral debate about the proper means and ends of freethought. On most such occasions, it would have been simple enough to make essentially the same substantive arguments without making personal attacks, but probably that would have been less gratifying to our tribalist instinct to line up and take sides.

There are exceptions, of course. Some public figures (e.g. Scofield, Stedman, and Croft) have significantly fewer readers than the Freethought bloggers, but are deliberately engaging them in a public debate over the future of freethought. More distressingly, sometimes someone prints something so profoundly odious that punching down is the only appropriate response, other than perhaps crashing the server. There is no possible way to engage in a substantive debate or productive exchange of ideas with those who open the conversation with dehumanizing threats.

No doubt the enthusiastic supporters of Freethought Blogs will find some way to justify each and every instance of bullying from the FtB pulpit. That's how people generally work: tribal allegiances first, post-hoc rationalizations thereafter.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sexism vs. Atheism at FtB

Since sexism has become such a hugely popular topic within the broader freethought community, and since FreethoughtBlogs has become the proverbial 275 kilo Architeuthis of online unbelief, it seems fitting to get a sense of which FtB authors cover sexism the most often relative to some given baseline. The following list of the top dozen blogs is rough approximation based on comparing only two search terms, however, there are very few surprises here.

Monday, July 9, 2012

A brief history of #FtBullies

18 Jun 2012
Ophelia Benson pushes back against characterizations of Freethought Blogs as a haven for bullies:

21 Jun 2012
Richard Sanderson coins the new hashtag:

23 Jun 2012
Jeremy Stangroom jumps in

01 Jul 2012
Ophelia and friends join the party, and the hash-crash begins

Also on July 1st, Paula Kirby publishes Sisterhood of the Oppressed, thereby sealing her fate with respect to certain blogging collectives.

03 Jul 2012
Paula Kirby joins the fray on Twitter.

04 Jul 2012
Greta Christina and Jason Thibeault boast (without any apparent sense of self-awareness) about how they leveraged the size of FtB's loyal following to dilute out the original message of the hashtag, which was mostly people complaining about how FtB finds various ways to prevent the dissemination of dissent. At this point, the hypocrisy circuit on my personal irony meter completely blows out and causes collateral damage to both my sense of humor and my wireless router.

The ongoing hash crash becomes ever more intense, mostly consisting of lighthearted nonsense and occasionally sparkling satire. If you're going to shout down grouchy dissenters, hey, at least make it entertaining.

Finally, someone calling himself "dysomniak" apparently has in his hand a list of names of known misogynists:

No evidence is forthcoming, but the smear does the trick. People calling themselves skeptics block the accused without asking for evidence. Further blacklisting ensues. I include this last not because dysomniak is anyone special at FtB, but because he is representative of a certain kind of angry Pharyngulite, for whom the ends completely justify the means.

After this point, there are still a few feeble attempts to discuss actual cyberbullying on (and from) both sides, but for the most part the hash degenerated into name calling and mutual recrimination. Final recap video posted here.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Playing the privilege card

If you're bored (and not remotely inclined to suicidal ideation) it's sort of fun to keep track of how many comments are posted over at the FtB before someone derides someone else (usually a white guy) for having 'privilege' while having an opinion, particularly in threads where the original post is at least somewhat related to sexism or feminism or some other form of group-based discrimination.

So Much Wrong - Comment #10
Real Threat Assessment Experts - Comment #6
Threat Assessment - Comment #18
Schroedinger's Threat - Comment #83
Why I Have Hope - Comment #2
Sexual Harassment Definitions - Comment #5
Holy Fucking Shit - Comment #19
Eye Runny - Comment #16
I look at the slimepits - Comment #26
Making my comment rules explicit - Comment #52

This is just a small sampling, of course, and should not be considered statistically representative. Moreover, I don't mean to lump in serious conversations of the actual problem of privilege with the use of the word as a pejorative: a shorthand way to dismiss dissenting voices, lock out neophytes who are't yet hip to the jive, and prevent a two-sided exchange of ideas.

It's not just the term 'privilege' that's being used as a cudgel over there, either. Try expressing a dissenting view on any sensitive issue without being called a 'troll' or worse. Don't take my word for it, go ahead, try it yourself. Be as polite as you like while doing so, but disagree with the OP and see what happens.

And that's really what this kerfuffle has really been about - dissent. We can all agree that sexism is a real problem, but disagree about the scope of the problem and whether the solution should be handled in an authoritarian top-down manner (creating and enforcing policies) or via the usual interpersonal social mechanisms (informally enforced cultural norms against harassment, misogyny, and the like). As usual, the rift is between an authoritarian feminist approach (e.g. actively creating safe spaces unburdened by dissenters) and a more laissez-faire masculist approach (e.g. passively allowing unmoderated slimepits), and as usual the debate has degenerated into name-calling and recrimination in most corners of the web.

Personally, I lean towards the FtB / Skepchick party line on this particular issue, but that doesn't mean that I'm remotely thrilled about the name calling and derision heaped upon those who disagree. One can agree upon ends but not means, after all.

Friday, June 1, 2012

A general theory of in-group kerfuffles

Probably someone with a background in psychology has already done this, with more data, more rigor, and more eloquence, but I'm going to give it a go anyhow. Having experienced an undue amount of interpersonal drama throughout the month of May, I have often found myself wondering: Is there a general pattern to the incidents which divide the freethought community? Can we generalize from major controversies such as Elevatorgate and Gelatogate to the smaller incidents which go on at a grassroots level? Some have said that we shouldn't reopen old wounds, or fan the flames, or [insert unpleasant analogy of choice], but please understand that this is not at all my intention. To the contrary, my hope is that once we begin to recognize the general pattern at work, we will start to catch ourselves before contributing to the next blow-up, however big or small.

All that said, here is the general framework which I've come up with so far:

1) Offensive action
2) Defensive reaction
3) Commentariat takes sides
4) Repeat until well and thoroughly bloodied

Some examples of step (1) might include propositioning a woman at a conference, or giving a satirical sermon peppered with blasphemy and vulgarity, posting a potentially offensive photo or suggestion to a private message board, or refusing to take down certain offensive threads.

Corresponding examples of step (2) might include editorial blogging about the propriety of sexual propositions in a given context, attempting to unwelcome unbelievers from a gelato shop, moderating posts which are considered offensive or otherwise inappropriate in a private forum, or creating a blacklist of speakers with which one refuses to share a stage.

So far, so good. Someone has expressed themselves, and someone else has done so as well, and both parties are probably feeling a bit rejected or affronted. Step (3), however, is where we provide redundant evidence that humans are just a chromosome away from flinging shit at each other, as we line up to take sides with the party from step (1) or step (2) and gradually slide down the path from rational arguments to personal attacks. Eventually, we get to the point where third-parties are attacking each other based on guilt by association, in a sort of virtual family feud.

Note that I'm saying "we" because I am not nearly above the fray, and I've personally been guilty of every misstep described herein. Notice also that I'm greatly oversimplifying for the sake of the model. In reality, steps (1) and (2) may be interchanged depending on point of view, and they will often engender a series of spinoff discussions which recapitulate the entire process repeatedly, nesting loops of mutual recrimination between third parties and thus giving rise to step (3).

Finally, I have to note that steps (1) and (2) are to some degree inevitable. The freethought community will always have members who lean towards untrammeled free expression (however shocking it might be) and others who prefer a more humanistic approach of carefully tailoring speech to the sensibilities of the audience. Even those who acknowledge that a balance must always be struck between free expression and consideration will inevitably be tempted to take sides in particular cases.

What, then, can we do?  We must learn to recognize when we are giving offense, taking offense, reacting defensively, or otherwise engaging in a vicious cycle of emotional escalation. We must learn to recognize when we are taking sides in a controversy and assigning guilt by association to those arguing for the other side. We must learn to recognize the signs of online disinhibition and compensate accordingly. Within our local groups, we must recognize that the leadership and moderators are trying their very best to balance the interests of all sides, and give them more credit than grief for doing so, even when things don't go our way. Above all, we have to keep our minds open to new evidence and to the possibility that we are missing salient facts, miscommunicating our position, or just plain wrong.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Biblical Literalism and Political Conservatism

Years ago, I posted a few thoughts on the rough shape of the Bible Belt in modern America.  I'd like to update those those just a bit relative to the 2012 election.  Here is the map based on the same Pew data as before:

As before, I've removed (grayed out) the bits of CONUS in which scriptural literalism falls below the 30% threshold.  What is left is what I would call the 'Bible Belt' based on relevant data from social scientists. 

Now, take a hard look at this map. Are any states which the incumbent President can reasonably expect to win in November which fall inside of the Bible Belt as I've defined it here? The answer depends on which polls you're tracking and what day or the week it is, but it's basically down to Virginia, Ohio, and maybe Florida, and each of these is pretty much a toss-up.  Every other Bible Belt state (and a few extras) are firmly in the GOP camp, while most of the Northeast, West Coast, and Great Lakes states are as firmly in the other column.

The conclusion is ineluctable and disturbing: The political lines dividing our country are not merely a function of demography and political ideology, but also a matter of how one approaches religious faith. Generally speaking, the more likely one is to accept the Bible as literally true, word for word, the more likely one is to vote Republican.  I'd be interested in hearing any theories as to why this might be so.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Six Modest Proposals

The increasing polarization of American politics and culture has many people concerned for the future of our great Republic. After much careful consideration and not a little hand-wringing, I've come up with six ways to bring the right- and left-wings of the socio-political spectrum into a more perfect union.

1) Baby Oil
The right has called repeatedly for opening up more domestic sources of energy, with slogans such as "Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less!" Meanwhile, the political left has supported innovation in renewable energy and (apparently unrelatedly) put its weight behind Roe v. Wade, which has allowed for an average of 1.3 million legally induced abortions per year since it was handed down. That is a massive amount of organic material which currently goes almost completely to waste. If we can only find a new method by which to fuel our vehicles and power plants using human fetuses instead of fossil fuels, surely both sides can come together and encourage abortion doctors to "Drill, Baby, Drill!" our way to national energy independence.

2) Single-payer sterilization
This one is such a win/win it is practically a no-brainer. The left has been clamoring for population control from time immemorial, from Margaret Sanger to Paul Ehrlich to the activists at; more recently they have also been clamoring for single-payer health care here in the U.S. Meanwhile, the right has been up in arms over abortion, bastardy, and transfer payments to single mothers. In the future, we can greatly reduce all these social ills and the human population itself by the simple expedient of universal mandatory reversible vasectomies for men and removable implants for women, both funded by the national health service and reversed upon request for those who can present a legal marriage certificate. The right will take consolation in the fact that only married heterosexuals will be allowed to create babies henceforth, while the left will finally enjoy the implementation of effective population control. As an added bonus, this policy will also have the effect of slowing if not halting the prevalence of dysgenic breeding, feared by right-wing intellectuals such as Charles Murray for decades. Naturally, this reform would make my first proposal obsolete, so we'll have find some way to wean ourselves off of fetal fuels prior to implementation.

3) Occupy Ball St.
Left-wing liberals love nothing so much as a crowd of rowdy hippies protesting the powers that be, while right-wing troglodytes apparently cannot get enough of college football. What better way to combine these two activities than to recruit a crowd of angry young hipsters to support Cardinals football? They have an 0-5 record in Division I bowl games, having been outscored by a total score of 184-97, so there is little risk that they will ever become part of the top 1% of NCAA football. If you're going gather together a crowd of discontented losers, why not gather two? Perhaps by rubbing elbows with sports fans, the protest crowd will finally realize that it is utterly hopeless to try to fix America, and then they can get back to serious endeavors like finishing up their degrees in [historically oppressed group of choice] studies.

4) War on Poverty
Generally, progressives support social safety nets and transfer payments as a means for promoting the national welfare, while conservatives support the notion that warfare is the health of the state. Why not combine these two notions into a modern synthesis? Instead of leaving our war veterans to find a job and fend for themselves upon returning to the homeland, we can recruit them to fight poverty by hunting down and killing the Wall Street bankers who wrecked the global economy in the first place. Naturally, the soldiers would be ordered to redistribute all wealth liberated from the clutches of the bankers in the form of transfer payments to the desperately needy. As the result of this policy, the left will get to realize their goal of eradicating poverty, while the right may rightly revel in the fact that patriotic American soldiers get to go on killing enemies of the state.

5) Church-state integration
On its face, this might seem like a total capitulation of the secular left to the religious right, but please hear me out. Once the wall of separation is torn down, the government can start paying churches directly to fund their building campaigns and charitable programs, and then threaten to withhold funding if the churches don't live up to strict anti-discrimination laws interpreted by a panel of west-coast liberal activist judges. If you can think of a quicker way to get Southern Baptists to offer marriage counseling and adoption planning to interracial gay couples, I'd like to hear it.

6) $2.50 / gallon gas -- On the moon!
This one should be self-explanatory. The left loves funding research and scientific advances, while the right loves oil subsidies and cheap gasoline. What better way to combine the two than to develop lunar colonies wholly dependent upon fossil fuels? Granted, a few million years of terraforming seems like a huge up-front investment, but we have to learn to take the long view.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Contra Bacon

Every faith community is occasionally riven over matters of doctrine and practice, and this goes for communities of unfaith as much as anyone else. Those who see themselves as reformers may be recorded by history as splitters, heretics, or worse. Acutely aware of these issues, it is with great trepidation that I have come to the conclusion that I must speak out against bacon.

That's right, bacon. It is growing threat to the freethought community, and I'm here to warn you against it. Firstly, it is an explicitly pro-Christian food. Allow me to quote just a bit from the late great Christopher Hitchens on this point, from God is Not Great (pp. 40-41):
Porcophilia can also be used for oppressive and repressive purposes. In medieval Spain, where Jews and Muslims were compelled on pain of death and torture to convert to Christianity, the religious authorities quite rightly suspected that many of the conversions were not sincere. Indeed, the Inquisition arose partly from the holy dread that secret infidels were attending Mass—where of course, and even more disgustingly, they were pretending to eat human flesh and drink human blood, in the person of Christ himself. Among the customs that arose in consequence was the offering, at most events formal and informal, of a plate of charcuterie. Those who have been fortunate enough to visit Spain, or any good Spanish restaurant, will be familiar with the gesture of hospitality: literally dozens of pieces of differently cured, differently sliced pig. But the grim origin of this lies in a constant effort to sniff out heresy, and to be unsmilingly watchful for giveaway expressions of distaste. In the hands of eager Christian fanatics, even the toothsome Jamon Iberico could be pressed into service as a form of torture.

Five years ago, Hitchens warned us of the potentially evil uses of bacon, but many devout atheists have refused to heed his warnings. Instead, they continue to interject bacon into conversation and inject it into recipes, with wanton disregard of the role it has historically played in enforcing Christian dominionism throughout the Iberian peninsula.

Why, you ask, are Christians so keen on bacon? Is it merely a means of distinguishing themselves from Jews and Muslims, or does this perverse porcophilia go deeper? It goes deeper, my friends, it goes so much deeper, to the very roots of the Christian Church.

The two great pillars of the early church were, of course, the apostles Paul and Peter. Paul's mission was to bring the Christian gospel to the Gentiles throughout the Roman Empire, peoples already quite familiar with and indulgent in all manner of pork products. His major hangup was with the practice of circumcising new Christian converts as if they were Jews, a ritual requirement which was not exactly helping along his missionary efforts, and which he helped to abolish by writing various screeds against it. Needless to say, new converts flowed in more rapidly once this issue was definitively settled in Paul's favor.

Peter's mission, meanwhile, was primarily to bring the Jews into the Christian fold, men who were circumcised from birth but may have been well educated and culturally Hellenized. For these men, circumcision was not a live issue, but pork surely was. In major centers of Roman influence such as Sepphoris and Caesarea, first century Jews would have seen their Gentile neighbors herding swine, pulling pork, and frying bacon. They would also be aware from their rabbinical training that God changes the dietary rules every so often, such as just after the Noahic flood and again with the proclamation of the Levitical holiness code. They would also know that any true Messiah would bring with him a new order of the ages, the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God, and with that the possibility of a new set of social relations and dietary rules. Jesus alluded to such an upheaval when he repeatedly proclaimed that "the last will be first, and the first will be last," but did that saying apply only to persons, or also to that which they consume? Would the most ritually unclean of animals be cleared for human consumption in the new dispensation?

With the smell of frying bacon still wafting about, Peter fretted over this question day and night, until finally the answer came to him in a dream. It looked something like this. Take a moment to browse through those illustrations, please. I'll wait.

Ok, did you notice anything particularly odd about those heavenly picnic blankets? Right. Most of those animals either aren't that appealing (reptiles), or they are incredibly hard to get (e.g. lions and bears), or they are already kosher. The only domesticated animal on the menu that clearly appeals with the Hellenized Jews of the time period was, you guessed it, the pigs. Peter's amazing heavenly flying-carpet picnic-blanket at once solves the problem of how to give the men who are already circumcised an incentive to join the nascent Jesus movement - BACON!

In conclusion, then, we've seen that the two great pillars of the early Christian church solved similar recruitment problems in a similar way, by assimilating themselves to the culture of the gentile polytheists. In doing so, however, they sealed the fate of the Christian church forever. No longer could it maintain its identity as an insular Jewish sect, but instead it has to look outward for new converts, leading eventually to global colonization and the wholesale destruction of native peoples by viruses originally endemic to Indo-European swine herds.

Do freethinkers really want to associate ourselves with an animal that has wrought so much harm in the name of Christ? Or shall we instead stand boldly on the side of all that is right and good and pure, namely, pasta? The FSM will no longer tolerate second-billing to this upstart bacon meme. There can be only ONE truly HOLY food. Pastafarians of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your hypercholesterolemia.