Update on Fort Worth Bus Ads

I have a short update on the atheist ad campaign running on Fort Worth buses. In my last post, I mentioned that a coalition of city pastors were furious over the ads and tried to organize a boycott. (Would it help to tell them that this is how atheists feel all the time? Probably not.)

The boycott appears to have gone nowhere fast, but something else did happen: another Christian group paid for vans displaying a religious message to follow the buses around town all day. Personally, I think this is hilarious. Do the Christians really have that much faith in the power of a two-second glimpse of an atheist message to change people's minds? Maybe they're imagining that the atheist bus emanates some kind of irresistible persuasive power, turning everyone it passes into a nonbeliever - but then the Christian van comes in its wake and changes them right back!

Millions of Americans Are Good Without God

Take that, atheists!

In reality, what they can't seem to recognize is that the atheist ads aren't intended to change minds in the spot. They're aimed at people who are already atheists, or who are leaning that way, encouraging them to come out of the closet and to join local groups like DFWCOR. Surveys consistently show that there are far more atheists in America than most people realize; the goal of ad campaigns like this is to collect this low-hanging fruit. By contrast, it's safe to assume that everyone who wants to join a Christian church has already done so. But if the Christians want to waste their money on foolish stunts like this, I say more power to them.

I'm also pleased because the ridiculous bus-stalking idea is only going to draw more publicity and attention to the atheists. As this article points out, DFWCOR only paid for ads to run on the sides of four buses, out of about 200 in the city. But the frenzied reaction from bigoted Christians has enormously multiplied the impact of the campaign and ensured that far more people have seen or heard about it than otherwise would have. So, again: Thanks, Christians!

Finally, it amuses me to note that, in response to the campaign, the transit authority decided to ban all religious and atheist advertising in the future. (According to this report from Friendly Atheist, one of the board members ranted about how messages like this shouldn't be permitted in America.)

I'm not upset, exactly, but I'd be willing to bet that religious ads have run on these buses many times and no one ever complained. It was only when groups who aren't in the majority want to exercise their equal rights that people get angry - as I mentioned in my original post, Dallas did the same thing to block the atheist ads from running. Still, as hypocritical as this is, I'm not bothered as long as the new policy is applied equally and fairly. Atheists have plenty of other places to advertise, and if that's what it takes to make our government a little bit more secular, I'm happy about that too!

December 18, 2010, 4:17 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink25 comments

Atheists Don't Debate (Except When We Do)

A Review of When Atheism Becomes Religion, Part II

In chapter 3, Hedges gives a two-and-a-half-page-long excerpt of a debate he had with Sam Harris at UCLA in May 2007, moderated by the columnist Robert Scheer, about whether Islam encourages suicide bombing:

HARRIS: OK, well, let me deal with your taking the measure of the Muslim world. Happily we do not assess public opinion by having New York Times journalists go out and live in the Muslim world and make friends and get a vibe... A single well-run opinion poll would be worth a thousand years of you wandering around the Middle East.

SCHEER: Come on.

HARRIS: That's not meant to be hyperbolic.

SCHEER: Wrong, wrong, wrong.

HARRIS: Let me tell you -

SCHEER: You can't possibly believe that about polls, my God -

HARRIS: All we've got is conversations; all we've got is conversations.

SCHEER: The man has lived there for 15 years, for God's sake. (p.73)

This quote is noteworthy for the way Scheer, allegedly present to act as the moderator, gives up the pretense of doing that and openly joins Hedges' side. Hedges doesn't comment on this, so either he didn't notice (unlikely) or doesn't think it casts him in a bad light that he let the moderator argue his side of the debate for him. After this quote, Hedges resumes bashing his opponents:

Harris follows the line of least resistance. He does not engage in the hard and laborious work of acquiring knowledge and understanding. Self-criticism and self-reflection are a waste of time. Nuance and complexity ruins the entertainment and defeats the simple, neat solutions he offers up to cope with the world's problems. He does not deal in abstractions. He sees all people as clearly defined. The world is divided into those who embrace or reject his belief system. Those that support him are good, and forces for human progress. Those that oppose him are ignorant at best, and probably evil. He has no interest in debate, dialogue or scholarship. (p.75)

Harris has "no interest in debate"? After you just spent two and a half pages quoting from a debate he had with you? Did an editor even look at this book?

What really piques Hedges' ire is that Sam Harris, when trying to explain the causes of Islamic terrorism, didn't accept Hedges' own personal reminiscences about people he met as a Mideast correspondent, and decided instead to rely on those worthless nobodies at Pew and their so-called "scientific 38,000-person random sampling of the populations of nine countries". And then there's Harris' outrageous statement about the cause of the Yugoslavian war in the 90s:

[Harris' book was] tedious, at its best, and often ignorant and racist. His assertion, for example, that the war in the former Yugoslavia was caused by religion was ridiculous. (p.2)

Ooh, those atheists just make Chris Hedges so mad! They don't know anything about what causes war. It's a good thing we have a foreign-policy genius like Hedges to tell us what factors really led to that brutal episode of ethnic cleansing:

The Serbian ethnic cleansing campaigns... sought their moral justification in distant and often mythic humiliations suffered by the Serbs, especially the 1396 defeat of Serbian forces by the Ottoman Turks at the Field of Blackbirds in the province of Kosovo... the mythic tale of the defeat, and the alleged treachery of the Muslims in the battle, figured prominently in windy discussions by common soldiers on the front lines in Bosnia during the war. (p.133)

The collective humiliation and the rage it produced obliterated self-reflection and self-criticism. It fed acts of aggression against Muslims. The images on the evening news in Belgrade of Serbian victims, as well as the alleged atrocities by the Muslims in Bosnia or Kosovo, were used to justify the wanton attacks by Serbs, most of them against unarmed Bosnian Muslims. (p.133)

The worst atrocities in Bosnia were sanctified not by imams, but by Catholic and Serbian Orthodox priests. (p.149)

But don't forget, religion had nothing to do with causing that war! To say so would be "ridiculous", and only "ignorant and racist" people like Sam Harris would think that! Aren't you glad you have a Very Serious Person like Chris Hedges to explain this all to you?

Ironically, Hedges' defense is the same as that of the Christian fundamentalists he decries: When discussing a modern holy war, if there are any identifiable political or nationalistic motives for either warring side, he concludes that religion is excused of all blame - even when religious figures sanctify acts of bloodshed, even when religious rhetoric is used by the warring sides to condemn each other or inflame their own people's passions, even when religion is the very basis that the warring sides use to tell each other apart in the first place. As atheists, we should have no trouble agreeing that factors other than religion play into violent conflict, even if religion also bears a large share of the responsibility. It's only people like Hedges who have to deny the obvious truth that religion can be both an initiator and an accelerant of bloodshed.

Other posts in this series:

December 13, 2010, 2:52 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink26 comments

The Bechdel Test for Religion

If you're an informed observer of media, you may have heard of the so-called Bechdel test, popularized by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, that's used to judge the female-friendliness of movies and other media. For a movie to pass this test, it has to have:

(1) two or more female characters;
(2) who talk to each other;
(3) about something other than a man.

Despite this being such a low hurdle - it doesn't establish that the movie is in any way feminist, merely that it treats women as something more than an appendage or love interest of the male characters - it's amazing how many movies fail it. And once you're aware of this test, it's easy to notice when a movie doesn't pass. This makes it a classic example of consciousness-raising: it highlights Hollywood's tendency to create movies where women exist only in relation to men and not as individuals in their own right.

This is such a useful way of highlighting bias, I think it's worth creating a similar test for religion, to help believers notice sexism in their churches they might have overlooked. My suggestion is as follows. For a religion to pass this test, it has to have:

(1) at least one woman in a position of authority;
(2) who plays a formal, recognized role in shaping doctrine or practice;
(3) that is binding on male members of that religion.

Let me further explain the meaning of these tests. The first asks whether a religion has any roles of authority - any official position within the church that carries power - that are open to women, or whether female members are restricted to being lay members with no power. The second asks whether that authoritative role confers any power to actually define what will be the canonical elements of that religion - to issue decrees, to define the correct interpretation of holy books, to vote on church reforms, to shape official practice - and the like, or whether the only duties of that position are to passively transmit preexisting ideas. If women do have such authoritative roles, the third test asks whether they can set doctrine that applies to men who are members of that religion, or whether their decisions apply only to other women.

If a religion categorically excludes women from all positions of authority, it fails. If it gives women positions of authority, but only so that they can teach and pass on doctrine created by men, it fails. If it permits women to create doctrine, but doctrine that's only applicable to other women, it fails.

For instance, Islam, as it's currently practiced throughout most of the world, fails at the first criterion; women aren't permitted to be imams or to issue fatwas, or to do much of anything other than obey the dictates of men. The same is true of Mormonism, which deliberately bars women from its priesthood, of the Southern Baptists, and of Orthodox Judaism.

Roman Catholicism fails at the second criterion; it permits women to be nuns, thus passing the first test (if only barely). But cardinals, bishops and ultimately the Pope, the only church officials who can define what's authoritative in matters of belief and practice for Catholics, can only be men.

The conservative Anglicans currently threatening to break away from the rest of their church, meanwhile, would arguably fail at the third test. They wanted to permit women to be bishops only on the condition that a separate order of male-only bishops be created to minister to their congregations. This would imply that no male Anglican could be subject to a female bishop if he didn't want to be.

As with the Bechdel test, the mere fact that a religion passes this test doesn't mean that it's a feminist or egalitarian religion. It could still be appallingly sexist. It could still have rules that treat women as inferior to men. And it could still be harmful in any number of other ways. But I would argue that this test is the bare minimum - the first necessary, but not sufficient, step for any religion to genuinely treat women as equals.

July 26, 2010, 5:52 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink49 comments

Find Me in Free Inquiry

By Ebonmuse

Before my flight leaves, I'm just dropping by to post a quick note: the newest (June/July 2010) issue of Free Inquiry magazine contains an original article by me, "Diplomats and Rabble-Rousers". The article discusses my views on the New Atheist movement and those who criticize it, pointing out that our accommodationist opponents are overlooking a basic lesson from history about what makes social reform movements successful. Go check it out! I'll post a web link at a later date if one becomes available.

May 16, 2010, 8:58 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink5 comments

The Science Gap

While we're on the topic of science and the public, I came across another opinion poll worth mentioning: a survey released this month by Pew, Public Praises Science; Scientists Fault Public, Media, which analyzes how the public views scientific achievement and what professional scientists think of how their work is covered in the media (HT: Obsidian Wings). There's lots to chew over in this report, but I want to focus on this section, which shows how many ideas that are accepted by an overwhelming majority of scientists do not enjoy similar levels of support from the public:

There are a couple of things we can take away from this, but here's the first one: The media is not doing its job. Just as we lambaste the food industry when people come down with mass E. coli infection from tainted meat or contaminated greens, so too do media outlets deserve criticism when the public whom they serve believes demonstrably false things about the nature of our country or our world. This, like outbreaks of food poisoning, is a sign that there's been a failure of quality control somewhere along the line.

The media is supposed to inform the public and communicate the truth about important issues. Instead, in their pursuit of the illusion of balance, many media outlets have taken the stance that their job is to be stenographers to the powerful - writing down opposing views in he-said-she-said fashion, without making any effort to adjudicate between them or to point out which viewpoint finds support in the facts. This intellectual laziness too often masquerades as "fairness". In fact, it's a victory for ideologues who oppose the scientific consensus - creationists, climate-change deniers, and others - and who can win a debate merely by creating an artificial controversy and preventing the truth from becoming widely known.

But scientists aren't entirely blameless either. Although they're right to complain about sloppy or sensationalistic news coverage, scientists themselves should be doing more to convey their views to the public. Our goal should be a culture where public communication - writing books, giving talks and interviews, blogging, and furthering science-themed media outlets - is viewed as an important part of a scientist's career, not as a frivolous adjunct or a distraction from the really important work. Pushing back against pseudoscience, and creating an educated, scientifically literate public, is by far the best solution to the problem that scientists mention the most: the chronic lack of funding and support for basic research.

To close the science gap, we need a competent media and an active, engaged scientific community. Where either of these is lacking, fundamentalism and other forms of antiscience sprout like weeds. As a society, we've made tremendous progress in coming to understand the world we live in; that's the legacy of the Enlightenment. Now we need to see that those discoveries are communicated to the public as a whole, and are not just the domain of professional scientists.

July 13, 2009, 9:02 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink56 comments

Science Needs Good PR

My recent post on Project Steve brought several comments arguing that it's pointless to take a survey of scientists, like this one from Freidenker:

Frankly, I have no idea whatsoever how many scientists accept or reject evolution, and furthermore - it doesn't matter: even if all scientists all over the world rejected evolution, the evidence for evolution is still there.

...to really survey the scientific community for evolution support is truly a stupid thing to do: popularity has no bearing on scientific validity.

Reasonable as this sounds, I believe it's misguided, and in this post I'll try to explain why.

If we were waging a debate in the peer-reviewed literature, trying to convince other scientists to accept evolution, then citing the evidence would be the thing to do. But this isn't a scientific debate; as we should all well know, creationists are not scientists, and have no interest in evidence. They're advancing a religious belief which they hold regardless of what the facts say. Moreover, their objective is not to freely convince scientists, but to bypass the process of peer review altogether, and to directly force their beliefs to be taught in schools by lobbying school boards and legislatures.

In short, creationism is not a scientific movement, but a public-relations movement. Their goal is not to change scientists' minds - for how could they possibly convince the experts? - but to influence the public's perception. And to be victorious, we have to fight them on the same ground.

If we try to make the case for evolution solely by citing the evidence, we're playing into the creationists' hands. They can easily respond by saying, "That's very interesting, but we have lots of evidence of our own. The [cell/bacterial flagella/bombardier beetle/blood clotting cascade/take your pick] is so complex it couldn't possibly have evolved on its own! There must have been a Designer. Teach the controversy!"

Against laypeople and the uninformed - and, unfortunately, school boards and legislatures include generous quantities of each - this is an effective line of attack. A person who lacks the expertise to evaluate the scientific evidence, and to see that the creationist case is hogwash, will come away with nothing but the impression that both sides have good evidence of their own, so why not be fair and teach them both? It's this superficial sense of fairness that the creationists count on.

To defeat this tactic, it's not enough to cite evidence that the creationists can counter with "evidence" of their own. What we need is to go further and show that there is no genuine controversy, that real, practicing scientists are all but unanimous in their support of evolution, and more, that creationists have avoided laying their case before the people best qualified to evaluate it.

That's why efforts like Project Steve, lighthearted as they are, make an important point. Ordinary people may not know much about the scientific method, but they respect the authority of scientists. Laypeople may be ill-prepared to decide the merits of dueling arguments, but when they see that all the scientists line up on one side, that is something they can understand. This is why creationists fight so hard to give the impression that plenty of real scientists support creationism - and we must not concede that point to them! It's vital to show that their list of "scientists who doubt Darwinism" is, in reality, just a minuscule and carefully cultivated minority of dissenters, one that's swamped by the overwhelming tide of working scientists who not only accept evolution but rely on it in their work every day.

Yes, we should present the evidence for evolution - strongly and comprehensively. We should always be ready to show the public the many wonderful transitional fossils we've found. We should always be ready with evidence of new mutations that increase genetic information, new and incipient species in the process of formation, and maps of gene trees that illustrate the nested hierarchy of descent. But to supplement all this evidence, we must also be prepared to prove that these arguments actually have convinced scientists, and that the creationists' arguments have not. Only this two-pronged strategy can effectively undermine the creationist case and win acceptance of evolution in the eyes of the public.

June 12, 2009, 6:49 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink20 comments

New Post on Dangerous Intersection

I've put up a new post on Dangerous Intersection, "A 24-hour news network lineup I’d like to see".

This is an open thread.

March 17, 2009, 6:55 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink5 comments

Elizabeth Dole's Campaign Manager: We Regret Nothing

Regular readers of Daylight Atheism may recall how this site became involved in the U.S. Senate race in North Carolina last October. Trailing in the polls and running low on money, Republican senator Elizabeth Dole quoted Daylight Atheism in anti-atheist smear ads in a last-ditch attack aimed at her Democratic challenger Kay Hagan. Thankfully, Dole's brazen appeal to bigotry was an utter failure, and Election Day saw her defeated and Hagan victorious.

Now Dole's campaign manager, Marty Ryall, has written a post-mortem of the campaign and the infamous "Godless" ad. You would think that a decent and honorable person would express contrition over making such a shameless play for the bigot vote, that they would feel remorse for allowing desperation to drive them to such a low. But if you thought any of those things were true in this case, you don't know the modern Republican party.

Far from feeling regret, Ryall defends the Dole campaign's decision to air the ad. He acknowledges that it was risky and that he might have designed it somewhat differently if he'd had the chance to do it over, but he insists that the basic strategy was sound:

We had polled the issue in mid-September and found that it tested very well among the key groups that we needed to win. We needed to raise intensity among Republican voters, as well as shift the focus of Independents and conservative Democrats from our negatives to Kay Hagan in an unfavorable way. We needed something that had some shock value and would also generate an earned media component — and that was the "Godless" issue.

Ryall doesn't regret the ad because it contained claims that were blatant lies (atheists want to "eliminate the Christmas holiday"), or because he now realizes it's wrong for politicians to run campaigns by appealing to prejudice, or even because atheists proved to be a more influential political constituency than they had counted on. No, the only thing Marty Ryall says he regrets is not running the ad sooner!

I would argue that had we run the ad sooner, and without the voice at the end, it would have been closer. However, that is all hindsight.

It's clear that the Dole campaign, and the Republican party in general, have learned nothing whatsoever. Ryall attributes Elizabeth Dole's loss solely to the increased Democratic turnout, but never stops to consider what drove that turnout in the first place. Yes, the Obama campaign invested a lot of effort in getting voters to the polls, but the whole reason why that approach was so successful was that so many voters were fed up with the state of the country and willing to vote for a change of course. And why was that sentiment so widespread?

A look back at the eight years of the Bush presidency would readily reveal the answer to that question. The Republicans who were in power throughout most of that time, when they weren't violating Constitutional rights or waging preemptive wars at staggering cost, spent most of their time stoking the flames of the culture wars: demonizing their political adversaries, inflaming their base with shrill invective, cramming fundamentalist Christianity down the populace's throats, and churning out a ceaseless drumbeat of appeals to prejudice, hatred, and fear. They did all these things at the expense of governing, and the American republic suffered for it. Small wonder that American voters were sick and tired of their constant demagoguery, and ready to vote for candidates who could deliver meaningful solutions to actual important issues.

Ryall's article demonstrates the precise attitude that laid low Elizabeth Dole and so many other Republicans: that their fault wasn't in their philosophy, only in its execution. If only we'd worked a little harder at slandering atheists, he claims, we'd have won. I think the fact that they worked so hard at slandering atheists in the first place says a lot about their misguided priorities, and their defeat can be directly attributed to their failure to understand that.

March 7, 2009, 12:45 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink30 comments

Fertile Soil

We've arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements - transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting - profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.

—Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

A recent poll by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute found, as many previous surveys have found, that Americans' knowledge of political and historical facts about our country is abysmal. But this one added a twist - it surveyed elected officials as well as ordinary citizens, and found that their knowledge of the same facts was, if anything, even worse. (You can take the quiz yourself.)

I'm astounded that elected officials didn't do better than the average person. This is a worrying development that suggests the pervasive anti-intellectualism in our society is making its way into government. With some of these questions - for instance, the question about which branch of government has the power to declare war - the incorrect answers can likely be blamed on the influence of a right-wing movement that's actively hostile to the ideas of judicial review and separation of powers. But many of the questions have no such ideological implications, and wrong answers can only be blamed on a more general hostility to empirical knowledge, education and other positive qualities commonly scorned in the media as "elitism".

Anti-intellectualism in America

Photo courtesy of UMKC's Scopes trial page.

Commenters like Susan Jacoby have noted the pernicious effects of dumbing down our civil discourse, making us less able to evaluate the policy choices we face as a democratic nation. But worse than not knowing is the attitude that we don't need to know - that subjective certainty or ideological dogma can stand in for consensus, empirical knowledge about the way the world works. Religious faith is a special offender in this regard, teaching as it does that authority or tradition is a sufficient reason to believe something, and often praising believers as virtuous for believing things that are contradicted by the evidence. An ignorant, poorly educated society is fertile soil for every kind of superstition. Conversely, less educated people are far more likely to believe in ideas such as miracles, demons, and biblical literalism. (See also.)

Anti-intellectualism is nothing new, of course. There's always been a strong undercurrent of it in American society, one that dates back at least to the Scopes trial, and it's not a surprise that belligerently anti-science regions of the country elect representatives who act in kind. That's not new, but what is new is that our society - stretching the limits of what Earth's resources will support - is increasingly dependent on science and technology, and increasingly beset with problems, such as global climate change, that only scientific understanding will give us a hope to comprehend or solve. As the stakes get higher, we can less and less afford to have irrationalism poisoning the public debate and swaying our policy choices. The risk is too great that it will lead us astray at a critical moment.

The problem of anti-intellectualism has no easy solution, particularly when so many people take pride in their ignorance rather than viewing it as something to be ashamed of. Improving public schools is necessary, but at best it treats a symptom rather than a cause. What we need more is a return to the attitude that being intelligent and educated is a good thing which people should aspire to.

This is part of the reason why atheists must take a greater role in public discourse. Religious liberals and moderates can and often do join with us on specific social issues - but even they, for the most part, take the position that faith is an acceptable way of making policy decisions. We have an altogether different message, and one that's far more vital: decisions that affect the common good must be made on the basis of reason. That's a message worth promoting, and that's why we should disregard the squawking of those pundits who urge atheists to keep quiet and not criticize religion, because it's "disrespectful". Our message, in the long run, is crucial and necessary; if we need to do damage to established superstitions to get it out, so be it.

December 8, 2008, 9:17 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink75 comments

Daylight Atheism in the News

I just have to boast: I'm on TV!

Well, sort of, anyway. Daylight Atheism commenter RiddleOfSteel has brought to my attention this clip, in which Richard Dawkins is interviewed for the Canadian TV program The Agenda. As we all know by now, my essay "The New Ten Commandments" is quoted in Dr. Dawkins' book The God Delusion, and about halfway through the clip (at around 4:10), the interviewer reads one of my ten commandments verbatim.

That being said, I have to raise a substantial objection to the way my work is actually used. The interviewer's line of questioning for Dawkins is the standard, tired "why are you atheists so disrespectful of other people's faith" strategy. To my dismay, he quotes my third commandment - "Treat your fellow human beings, your fellow living things, and the world in general with love, honesty, faithfulness and respect" - and uses it to attack Dawkins in furtherance of this canard!

This is a serious misrepresentation of my views. I categorically did not mean by this that we should refrain from ever criticizing others or saying things that offend people's sensibilities. On the contrary, my ten commandments also include injunctions such as "Never seek to censor or cut yourself off from dissent; always respect the right of others to disagree with you", and especially, "Question everything".

In fact, in my third commandment, I define precisely what I mean by "respect":

"Respect" mandates treating others as inherently valuable, not using them as tools or means to an end that may be cast aside and discarded once they have made their contribution.

There is nothing in there about not criticizing other people's beliefs, nor should there be. In fact, I would argue that it shows more respect for others - respect for their intelligence and their ability for independent thought - to speak our minds freely to them and let them evaluate our arguments, rather than censor ourselves out of some spurious idea of politeness.

Richard Dawkins is dead-on when he states that religious beliefs have historically been surrounded by an abnormally and unjustifiably thick wall of respect. We atheists ought to make it our mission to demolish that wall: to raise people's consciousness and cause them to realize that religious beliefs, no less than any other category of beliefs, should be open to inquiry and criticism.

May 17, 2008, 11:31 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink13 comments

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