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.

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.