The recent outbreak of tornadoes in Oklahoma seems to have brought out the asshole in some folks. From Minister David Brassfield and his preaching about non-believers being “conspicuously absent whenever people need comforting” to Joe Klein’s foot-in-mouth disease, it seems to be open season for slander and hatred toward the secular community.

We all know the stereotypes spread around about non-believers : we’re selfish, narcissistic, immoral, uncaring, and eat babies to boot (delicious in Pad Thai by the way). These ugly lies are certainly what lead people to trust atheists about as much as they do rapists, and they aren’t going away on their own, apparently.

These nasty biases are very hurtful to not only the secular movement as a whole, but to individual atheists in particular. Atheists face stigma and hatred because it’s assumed we’re evil, due in large part to these biases. We all know (or are) that person who was rejected by their friends and family when they came out as non-believers.  Some have been discriminated against in employment and child custody disputes when it’s found out they don’t believe in deities.  We’re forced to carry these misconceptions around and constantly fight them on a personal basis with those we encounter. They permeate the public conscious so completely that we spend much of our time explaining to believers that that, yes, we actually do donate to charity, volunteer our time for good causes, raise money for children’s hospitals and battered women’s shelters, and just generally do good things as a regular part of our lives. It’s exhausting, and not very effective on an individual level.

So, what can be done? How can we combat these prejudices? Clues about this can be found in  the words of our slanderers.

Joe Klein’s “excuseapology” included this: “…it is certainly true, as my critics point out, that secular humanists, including atheists, can be incredibly generous. I never meant to imply they weren’t. But they are not organized.”

Minister Brassfield also gave us some clues. In his “regretraction” he said: “Another error was taking personal observations as a final say in a matter. In this area, I adopted a method of which I believe some atheists employ: Namely, the “if I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist” attitude. If it is wrong for one to use that approach to determine the existence of God, then it is wrong for me to use it to determine someone’s involvement in relief efforts.”

They’re kinda right. Ask yourself this – suppose you accused a church of only helping those who share their faith, that their good works aren’t really good works because they only benefit those who agree to listen to the “good word” in exchange for help, and the membership said “No way man, we help anyone no matter their belief”. Wouldn’t the skeptic in you insist on some evidence of this? Wouldn’t you expect to see some corroborating evidence of these unselfish good works? Why should we expect more evidence of their good works than we’re willing or able to present ourselves?

I think we can conclude that more open, organized and obvious good works on behalf of free-thought groups could combat some of the nastier stereotypes of atheists. After all, it’s really hard to hold on to the belief that atheists are selfish if you can see them as an organized group cleaning up what’s left of a stranger’s house after a tornado. The strange thing is, when I express this idea to the members of my local atheist group, I’m met with resistance. My friends fear that increasing the visibility of our good works by wearing matching t-shirts (or my favorite, Action Vests), using publicity methods like media interviews and press releases to promote our good works, or even organizing as a group (as opposed to “just showing up and working individually”) would lead to accusations of grandstanding or being media whores.

But it’s not just the stereotypes of others that seem so unfair. A member of my group stated on a public forum that identifying ourselves “to show others that we are helping is using the misfortune of victims to further our cause.” This and similar comments I’ve seen lately seem to be stereotypes themselves; that people who help as coordinated groups are only doing so to promote themselves and gain media attention.

While that may be true for some, and it is true that altruism should be the main reason anyone helps another, it doesn’t have to be the only reason. To think the only reason one helps another is for self promotion seems terribly cynical. I think it is possible to combine a selfless desire to help others with promotion that highlights the good works. Do we all really believe that Jimmy Carter only talks to the media about how he helps builds houses for the homeless in an effort to promote himself and how awesome he is? He does so to encourage others to serve, either by joining his group or another, or even starting their own. He promotes his efforts so he can expand the movement and bring more help to more people. As a result he and his organization Habitat for Humanity are highly respected and admired. He doesn’t promote Habitat to gain that respect and admiration, they are simply a byproduct of his efforts.

Look, I’m not trying to pick a fight. I think we have a bigger fight to wage against these stereotypes. But I do think one of the tools we could use against these ugly prejudices is media attention on the good works WE’RE ALREADY DOING. Coordinate matching shirts or vests so people can easily identify your group. If there is media present don’t be afraid to ask for an interview. Send press releases out when your group raises money for the local VA hospital or animal shelter. Learn to use the media for what it is – an enormously successful platform for disseminating information and knowledge.

Organization is extremely important because it allows small groups to punch above their weight while giving others a highly visible and effective example. You can get more work from 20 organized people than you can from 100 unorganized people. So set up a “Good Works Action Plan”. Identify those in your group who are natural leaders and task them with organizing small groups of people to plan fundraisers or charity events, then promote the hell out of them. Make sure you’ve identified those in your organization with special skills that would be helpful in crisis/emergency situations and keep them informed as to what’s needed and where. Plan ahead for potential relief and quick response efforts. But above all, don’t be afraid to tell the world who you are, what you’re doing and how they can join in and help.

Let’s all make sure we’re fighting these stereotypes in an effective and productive manner. Who knows, the unfair bias you crush just might be your own.

Good Without God (But Don’t Tell Anyone)

Fact : I’m A Bad Feminist Who Wishes She Were A Badass Feminist

I’m pretty new to the Twittersphere (follow me if ya want, @BrenWeber), but I do understand inside that ‘verse rages a vast and mostly ridiculous debate about the role of women in the skeptical community. I’ve been trying to educate myself more on this, which lead me to this: .


I couldn’t help myself, my first thought was to tweet back “Dunno, maybe just tell them there will be lots of chicks there?” That thought makes me a bad feminist, at least in some back alleys of the internet.

The fact that I didn’t send it is evidence I’m not a badass feminist. I need to work on that.

Now With 47% Less Emotion

Well, I got all the emotional baggage out the way with my last post about A+, so time to move on to the analytical. Emotions are interesting, no doubt, but when it comes to the heavy lifting of being a rational person I usually engage the more utilitarian side of myself. Unfortunately for A+ my practical side isn’t really excited about it either, to tell the truth. I actually think A+ has the potential to harm the non-belief movement.

The A+ movement wishes to present itself as a combination of disbelief and political ideology. They claim the disbelief ultimately leads one to embrace the more liberal side of the political spectrum, so melding the two is not only appropriate but inevitable. Too bad it isn’t wise.

There is an example of melding atheism to a political position that resulted in damage to the secularism they were seeking: Communism. Now I’m not talking about the fur-hat wearing, parade loving Ruskies (although I do kinda miss their showmanship, their costumes were fantastic!) I’m talking about all those writers, thinkers and rabble-rousers McCarthy was seemingly terrified of. Since communists were (incorrectly) believed to be wholly atheistic, during the “red scare” of the 1950’s Congress added the words “under God” to the pledge of allegiance as a defense against their influence. According David Greenberg in an article written for Slate magazine:

“The legislative history of the 1954 act stated that the hope was to “acknowledge the dependence of our people and our Government upon … the Creator … [and] deny the atheistic and materialistic concept of communism.”

It’s clear the intent was to distinguish America as fundamentally opposite of those “godless commies”. Of course 60 years later we realize we were never under any serious attack by communists in our country, but those words are still there, all because someone married disbelief with a political position. It just goes to show that given even the smallest opportunity to, the faithful in the halls of power will impose their beliefs on others, especially if they can earn political points in doing so. We shouldn’t be giving them these opportunities, because the laws of unforseen consequences will rear their ugly heads.

Additionally, considering the current Pew poll regarding faith and religiosity in America, it’s safe to say that an increasing number of young people are leaving their churches, and it’s pretty well-known that the push by churches to combine faith and politics is one of the driving forces behind this trend. They are rejecting the notion that their faith and politics are one in the same, and therefore are rejecting their churches and religion. This does not mean they are embracing disbelief, indeed they primarily self describe as being “spiritual but not religious”. But it does mean, as my friend Damion points out:

…since the “nothing in particulars” are marginally less skeptical than the general public, the only really good news here is that both of those groups are probably willing to hear us atheists and skeptics out when we try to explain to them that gods, spirits, souls, ghosts, astrology, reincarnation, faith-healing, and alt-med all fall into the same evidential category. To be sure, our mission field is expanding, but we still have to do the hard work of teaching people why and how to think critically about such claims.

Does anyone think our job of recruiting those who are leaving their churches because of politics will flock to us if we conflate our movement with politics? I think exactly the opposite, they will simply view our movement as just the same old crap they just left, only with a more “liberal” bent. These people might be open to a discussion of rationality, reason and logic as it pertains to their “spirituality”, but not if we muck up the process with politics.

Nailed it

I’ve mostly avoided getting involved on the Atheism+ debate, despite having strong opinions about it. I really thought it was a flash in the pan vanity project that would soon join its historical brethern the Betamax and the DeLorean in the scrapheap of noble but ultimately bad ideas, so I felt no real need to write about it.

But today I finally came across someone who hits the nail in the head about why I think it’s unnecessary crap. SoggyMog lays out most of my objections beautifully:

…yes it’s a bit grim to unexpectedly see someone masturbating on your walk to work – and of course what the homeless man was doing was illegal.  On the other hand, I couldn’t work out why McCreight seemed to have taken it as such a personal attack on her rights, as in her own words all that had happened was that she’d seen him masturbating while she was “walking by”.

I totally acknowledge that had I been in McCreight’s place there probably WOULD have been a moment of “ew, gross” when I saw this homeless man and registered what he was doing.  I’d also probably have got the hell out of there in a hurry.  But I’d like to think of myself that once the initial shock had subsided I’d have felt at least a “little “concern for this man, for his safety and well-being.  If I witnessed a homeless person shrieking in conversation with himself at the top of his voice, or engaging in self-harm, or doing anything else that most mentally-healthy people do not do in public, I would have felt uncomfortable and probably scared… but I would also have felt compassion. Why does this not apply because the particular eccentric behaviour this man was displaying happened to be sexual in nature?

Then I saw this tweet:

“Heaven forbid I want to walk to work without someone watching me as they masturbate without my consent

…and suddenly I got it. The reason McCreight expressed no sympathy or concern for the homeless man is that, in her world, “everything anyone does within the scope of her perception is about her”.

This has been one of my problems with the entire Elevatorgate/Atheism+ boongogle: it’s so selfish. From the first poor fool who assumed a pretty standard “No Thanks” to his clumsy attempts to mate was an abject rejection of all he was, is, and will be in this universe to the gals complaining that satirical jewelry was “harassment”, this entire boondoggle has been all about the “ME, MYSELF AND I!”

This is the inevitable raction of those suffering from what I like to call “Purple Participation Ribbon Syndrome”. We’ve bred an entire generation (perhaps even a couple of them) of overindulged, spoiled narcissists who think the entire world is only relevant as it pertains to them personally.

These people were raised with the idea that we’re all special; terrific in every way and deserving of credit for and praise for every feat ever attempted. They get good grades simply for trying really hard, toys as rewards for doing chores, trophies for coming to half of scheduled practices. They’ve been showered with accolades for every little thing they’ve ever done and it’s warped their minds so they can only see the world in terms of “What’s in it for me?”

They see every event, statement, idea, or activity through their own personal lens, constantly seeking the answer to the only question that’s relevant: “How does this effect me, and if it doesn’t, how can I make it effect me?” Worse yet, current definitions for words are wholly inadequate to describe their personal wonderfulness, so they make up new words to delineate themselves from the masses, which leads to the seemingly obsessive need to force everyone else to acknowledge their “specialness” by insisting we all refer to them by these new definitions. It’s maddening.

I have no objections to the stated goals if A+, I support all of them. But I do understand why folks find the execution icky, mostly because the attitudes of the organizers are icky. This is just one of my problems with A+, stay tuned for part two.