Yes, the Earth is still warming. No, it didn’t stop 16 years ago

7 02 2013

There are probably as many climate change myths circling around the internet as there were days of record-breaking temperatures in 2012.  The latest myth (a variation on another myth) is that global warming stopped 16 years go.  This is similar to other claims that say, “global warming stopped in year X”

This variation of the myth got its start after the Daily Mail (a London tabloid) reported:

“The world stopped getting warmer almost 16 years ago, according to new data released last week.

The figures, which have triggered debate among climate scientists, reveal that from the beginning of 1997 until August 2012, there was no discernible rise in aggregate global temperatures.

This means that the ‘plateau’ or ‘pause’ in global warming has now lasted for about the same time as the previous period when temperatures rose, 1980 to 1996. Before that, temperatures had been stable or declining for about 40 years” (Source).

As this article from Discovery shows, the Daily Mail article is filled with misrepresentations and falsehoods (not that such a fact ever stops these myths from spreading).  The Daily Mail attempted to use a report from the Met Office to show that the planet hasn’t been warming for the last 16 years, but as this statement from the Met Office explains, “The first decade of this century has been, by far, the warmest decade on instrumental record”.

The report the Met Office did put out doesn’t even make mention of the issue brought up by the Daily Mail article.  In fact, the Met Office explained this to the Daily Mail in an email exchange:

Q.1 (From the Daily Mail) “First, please confirm that they do indeed reveal no warming trend since 1997.”

The linear trend from August 1997 (in the middle of an exceptionally strong El Nino) to August 2012 (coming at the tail end of a double-dip La Nina) is about 0.03°C/decade, amounting to a temperature increase of 0.05°C over that period, but equally we could calculate the linear trend from 1999, during the subsequent La Nina, and show a more substantial warming.

As we’ve stressed before, choosing a starting or end point on short-term scales can be very misleading. Climate change can only be detected from multi-decadal timescales due to the inherent variability in the climate system. (emphasis added) If you use a longer period from HadCRUT4 the trend looks very different. For example, 1979 to 2011 shows 0.16°C/decade (or 0.15°C/decade in the NCDC dataset, 0.16°C/decade in GISS). Looking at successive decades over this period, each decade was warmer than the previous – so the 1990s were warmer than the 1980s, and the 2000s were warmer than both. Eight of the top ten warmest years have occurred in the last decade.

Over the last 140 years global surface temperatures have risen by about 0.8ºC. However, within this record there have been several periods lasting a decade or more during which temperatures have risen very slowly or cooled. The current period of reduced warming is not unprecedented and 15 year long periods are not unusual (Source).

Choosing a random starting point in order to get the data to say there is no warming is an old climate “skeptic” trick.  The last part of that message is important so I’ll restate it: “However, within this record there have been several periods lasting a decade or more during which temperatures have risen very slowly or cooled.”  Global warming isn’t about temperatures rising year-by-year in a straight line.  Variation is expected (a point I touched on in my previous post).

So what else do we know?  Well, the last 35 years have shown an increase in global temperatures.  But the warming has varied from year-to-year.  Various weather events, such as El Nino, along with volcanic activity have an impact on this year-to-year variation.  The upward trend is driven by greenhouse warming from human-created emissions.  Watch this video , even after those natural causes are taken out we still see an upward trend in temperatures over the last 16-years.

And let’s not forget that 2012 was the hottest year on record in the US (Source).

It’s as simple as that really.  This myth is, well, a myth.  The planet is warming, and humans are the cause.

Weird weather. Soon to be normal weather

1 02 2013

2012 was the year of extreme weather and 2013 is already looking like it will be runner-up, if it doesn’t break 2012’s records.  Over the past couple of weeks here in Southern Ontario the temperatures have gone from -20 (windchill -29) Celsius, to a high of 12.  As of right now the temperature sits at -9 (windchill -16).  At the start of the week I was walking around in shoes.  A couple of days later I had my winter boots back on.  The U.S., along with the rest of the world, has seen its fair share of extremes over the past year as records were shattered in 2012.

From The New York Times:

While parts of China are enduring the harshest winter in 30 years, the Antarctic is warming at an alarming rate. In Australia, out-of-control bushfires are partially the result of record-breaking weather (new colors were added to weather forecast maps, to account for the new kind of heat). In the United States, where Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of New Jersey and New York and where extreme drought still lingers in the Midwest, the average temperature in 2012 was more than a whole degree Fahrenheit (or 5/9 of a degree Celsius) higher than average – shattering the record.

More from The New York Times

Such events are increasing in intensity as well as frequency, Mr. Baddour said, a sign that climate change is not just about rising temperatures, but also about intense, unpleasant, anomalous weather of all kinds.

Here in Britain, people are used to thinking of rain as the wallpaper on life’s computer screen — an omnipresent, almost comforting background presence. But even the hardiest citizen was rattled by the near-biblical fierceness of the rains that bucketed down, and the floods that followed, three different times in 2012.

The extreme weather of 2012 has raised concerns among scientists, who say that these events are linked to climate change.  According . According to the National Climatic Assessment report released in 2012:

There is “unambiguous evidence” that the earth is warming. “Certain types of weather events,” the panel concluded, “have become more frequent and/or intense, including heat waves, heavy downpours, and, in some regions, floods and droughts. Sea level is rising, oceans are becoming more acidic, and glaciers and arctic sea ice are melting.”

The report makes it clear that the earth is warming and extreme weather events are occurring with increased frequency.  But is extreme weather proof of a warming planet?  Yes, and no.  Let’s get this out of the way:  Weather is not climate.  We’ll start by looking at some definitions:

Weather is the mix of events that happen each day in our atmosphere including temperature, rainfall and humidity. Weather is not the same everywhere. Perhaps it is hot, dry and sunny today where you live, but in other parts of the world it is cloudy, raining or even snowing. Every day, weather events are recorded and predicted by meteorologists worldwide.

Climate in your place on the globe controls the weather where you live. Climate is the average weather pattern in a place over many years. So, the climate of Antarctica is quite different than the climate of a tropical island. Hot summer days are quite typical of climates in many regions of the world, even without the effects of global warming (Source).

All this means is that you can’t point to a single weather event and say, “It was climate change”.  However, weather conditions can tell us something about the state of the climate.  A warmer planet increases, “the chances of weather disasters” (Source).

Another point to note is that although scientists predict a warmer planet, certain regions could face harsher winters.

The unprecedented expanse of ice-free Arctic Ocean has been absorbing the 24-hour sun over the short polar summer. The heat in the water must be released into the atmosphere if the ice is to re-form this autumn. “This is like a new energy source for the atmosphere,” said Francis.

This heat and water vapour will affect the all-important jet stream – the west-to-east winds that are the boundary between cold Arctic and the warm mid-latitudes. Others researchers have already shown that the jet stream has been shifting northwards in recent years.

This should serve as a reminder that while the global trend is a warming planet, that trend may not be evenly distributed.  We shouldn’t expect the global average temperature to increase in a nice straight line.  There could be cold periods, but the overall trend is a warming planet.


No one is being purged

24 01 2013

Much has already been said about Shermer’s statement regarding atheism being “a guy thing” and how the sensible thing to do would’ve been to say, “What I said wasn’t well thought out.  Allow me to apologize/clarify the intended meaning of my statement”.  Rather than what he did, which was to write an article that invokes the spectre of witch hunts and purges.  I, like many in the secular community, found myself baffled by Shermer’s reaction after Ophelia Benson called him out on his statement.  If anyone should know better than to make such arguments, it would be Shermer.  Wouldn’t it?

Now it would be disingenuous if I were to ignore that Shermer had more to say in his original quote than, “It’s a guy thing”.  Throughout this post I’ll be quoting from this article (unless otherwise stated).

First of all, Benson shortened the quote. What I prefaced the above with is: “I think it probably really is 50/50.” Benson also left out my follow up comment moments later that at the 2012 TAM (The Amazing Meeting) conference of skeptics and atheists, there were more women speakers than men speakers. I misspoke slightly. According to D. J. Grothe, the TAM organizer, there were an equal number of men and women speakers (the roster on the web page is incorrect) until, ironically, Ophelia Benson herself dropped out. As for the sex ratio of attendees, there were 40% women in 2011 and 31% in 2012, the shift, Grothe speculated online, possibly due to some of these very same secular feminists irresponsibly blogging about how skeptic or atheist events were not safe for women.

In any case, please read my answer again. Where do I say or even imply that women are, in Benson’s characterization of what I said, “too stupid to do nontheism” or that “unbelieving in God is thinky work and women don’t do thinky?” Clearly that is not what I said, as punctuated by my preface that I believe the actual sex ratio is 50/50. And for the record I don’t believe for a moment that women are not smart enough to do nonbelief thinking, or any other type of cognition for that matter.

Ok.  So what if the gender split really is 50/50?  We’re running the risk of having two different discussions.  One is strictly about the numbers and the participation rates, the other is about an underlying culture of discrimination that numbers alone can’t explain.  Back when the debate about how women were being treated came to the forefront of the secular community, some out there were demanding the numbers.  E.g., collect data on the number of women going to conferences, the number of harassment complaints that had been made, and compare this to the general population to see if a problem existed.  The problem is that determining the existence of gender discrimination in a community can’t be boiled down to a numbers game.  Now if we were going to make an argument that discrimination towards women is worse in the secular community than in others, then numbers would be useful.  However, that has not been the focus of the discussion within the community about women in secular-atheism.  Later in the article Shermer writes:

For all I know there may very well be stereotyping still going on in secular circles, but here I would like to challenge the assumption that a sex ratio other than 50/50 is evidence of misogyny. It isn’t.

Ok.  Fine, but the argument that misogyny exists in secular circles is not based solely on uneven sex ratios.  We are aware that unevenness in numbers does not equal misogyny.  Refuting that argument isn’t very useful.

Most of what Shermer writes in the article up to this point can be summed up as, “Ok.  It has a few problems but it’s not terrible.  He doesn’t say anything that’s too off the wall”.  Unfortunately, things start to take a bizarre turn right about here:

As well, as in witch hunts of centuries past, we should be cautious of making charges against others because of the near impossibility of denial or explanation after the accusation. (Just read the comments about me in the forum section of Benson’s blog, where I’m called a “jackass,” a “damn fool,” and other descriptors that have become commonplace in the invectosphere. Is there anything I could say that would not confirm readers’ beliefs?

First, if anyone can invoke the spectre of a “witch hunt” it would be female-identified feminists.  Because, you know, women were actually burnt as witches.  All those names Shermer was called?  That’s happening to the feminists as well.  Second, there is something Shermer could say to prove the beliefs of those commenters wrong.  “What I said wasn’t well thought out.  Allow me to apologize/clarify the intended meaning of my statement” Judging by the response to the article, most people would’ve accepted the apology.

In a different article he writes,

Let me provide another example of moral progress that at first will seem counterintuitive. It involves a McCarthy-like witch hunt within secular communities to root out the last vestiges of sexism, racism, and bigotry of any kind, real or imagined. Although this unfortunate trend has produced a backlash against itself by purging from its ranks the likes of such prominent advocates as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, I contend that this is in fact a sign of moral progress.

If you’ve been looking for a way to get people to immediately ignore the point you were making about moral progress, here it is.  Mention purges and, “a McCarthy-like witch hunt”.  To muddle the message even further, state that people were purged even though such a thing never happened.

What Shermer seems to be getting at in the aforementioned article is that there have been great strides of improvement in the role women have to play in the atheist movement.  Since our attention has turned inwards to address instances of sexism and misogyny things are getting out of hand, at least that’s the case in Shermer’s view.  He comes off as saying, ‘I’ve been very supportive of women in atheism.  Why are you coming after me now as an example of someone who hates women?’.  Of course, it’s been pointed out that Shermer has straw-manned the criticism made by Benson in response to his original statements.  I think Ed Brayton sums up Shermer’s reaction the best:

All of this is such an hysterical overreaction that it leaves my jaw agape. No one has been “purged” in any “inquisitions” or “witch hunts.” What they have been is criticized for saying dumb things now and again. You’d think that Shermer, who has spent most of his adult life encouraging people to think critically would recognize criticism when he sees it, but he squeals like a stuck pig when the harsh glare of criticism is turned on him.

Getting back to the first article.

Finally, there is a deeper problem here that I have observed over the past several years that I would like to address to the larger secular community, and that is the dangers of in-group fighting and inquisition purges of those who are not “pure” enough in their atheism, skepticism, or humanism.

I’m going to make the collective voice of secular feminists sound like a broken-record for a moment but, “Who is being purged?”  There is no central organization dictating who can and cannot participate in the world of secular-atheism.  Aside from internet forums, there hasn’t been a banning of people who disagree on feminism.  No one is dragging Shermer, Dawkins, or Harris off to a camp for defying the will of the party.  Mass burnings of “Skeptic” magazine aren’t taking place.

Nobody likes in-group fighting.  It isn’t fun, and we’d rather be focusing our energy on dealing with issues we can all agree on.  The problem is that the list of issues is rather small in our community.  As I previously wrote for CFI, “Being an atheist is fine, but it should not be the central basis of your ideology.”  The larger message behind that statement had to do with getting atheists to engage in political movements.  It’s really difficult to use lack of a belief in gods as a central driver in what you do.  Splits within movements happen all the time, movements where the threads that tie everyone together are much stronger than they are among atheists.  The transition period is bound to be unpleasant, but I don’t think it should be a shock to see a split occurring when the idea that is supposed to unite us is so weak. Given what Shermer says in his article, he is not unaware of the tendencies of movements to split.  However, he seems to view it as something that is generally undesirable.  I view it as necessary in the struggle to address the major issues of our time.  Why would I want to waste time in a group that is being held back from achieving its goals because a number of people cannot agree on the right way to move forward?  I would rather go with the faction that has demonstrated that its interpretation of our situation is best backed up by the evidence.  Such an approach doesn’t require a purge.  All it needs is for people to go their separate ways.

To avoid having that last statement taken the wrong way I should be clear: None of this means I’m going to completely ignore Shermer or suggest that other people do the same.  I just don’t see him as a voice to listen to when it comes to feminism in the secular-atheist community.  Stick to writing books on skepticism and why people believe weird things.

Advice for Clubs Day

17 01 2013

The University of Waterloo’s Clubs Day event is currently underway.  For readers that don’t go to UW, it’s a two day event where the student clubs set up booths in our student life centre to promote their clubs and recruit new members.  Having been involved with AAFW for close to 3 years now, and participating in the Clubs Day event every term that I’m actually on campus I thought I’d provide some general tips about promoting your atheist club at such an event.

1. Encourage several members of the club to come out and participate in promoting said club

Each Clubs Day event lasts for 5 – 6 hours.  No surprise, working a single booth for that long gets boring.  When people ask you to describe your club, what it does, when you meet, conditions for membership (if you have any), you end up repeating yourself which becomes tiresome.  Eventually, you’ll switch on your auto-pilot voice and then enthusiasm you had at the start of the day will be gone.  Involving multiple members can help alleviate the boredom.  You’ll have someone to converse with during the slow periods, they can also provide their own little presentation on what the club is all about allowing for a better sense of variety when it comes to what the club is all about.

2. Have at least one member that is good when it comes to making a “sales pitch”

What do I mean by this one? Have a member of the club that isn’t apprehensive to shout out to people who are just passing by.  Most of us tend to wait until someone is staring right at our display board, and even then we may wait for them to initiate the conversation before we start talking about the club.  This is because getting the attention of strangers who are barely paying attention as they walk by is difficult to do.  I know how I am when I’m on the other end of the exchange.  I’m likely to ignore you (or possibly not hear you because I have my headphones in).  Therefore, I’m expecting a similar attitude from the person if I’m the one trying to grab their attention.  However, the sales pitch method does work, not all the time, but it does work.  It will bring in people who otherwise wouldn’t have given the club a second-look.  If you don’t have anyone in the club who possesses a natural sales pitch mentality, then work on developing your own.  Practice.  The first few rejections and odd looks are going to hurt there’s no way around it.  Just try not to take it too personally.  Create a good one-liner that will catch someone’s attention.  Usually, “Hey, are you interested in atheism?” will do just fine.  Don’t hesitate to seek attention.  In an event that’s about promotion it’s exactly what you want.

3. Patience.  Be prepared for some frustrating conversations

You are the atheist club.  Expect controversy.  I’m sure this is an obvious statement, but it never hurts to repeat it.  You’re going to have people come by and say some rather annoying things.  Try to be polite.  We all get frustrated and there may come a moment when you need to end the conversation because it’s clearly going nowhere.  Promoting your club means promoting its attitude as well so do what you can to stay positive.

4. Have fun

During the peak hours of Clubs Day there’s always a small hint of excitement in the air.  More so during the Fall term when the new students arrive, eager to get involved in university life beyond studies.  Make sure your club’s ability to have fun is on display.  It’s a great recruiting technique.

Should all speech be free?

11 01 2013

In my previous post for CFI, I made a comment about how my views on free speech likely differ from the majority of the atheist community.  That is to say that I have some disagreement with the idea that all speech should be free.  Reasonable restrictions can, I believe, be placed on speech.  Before getting into this issue as it relates back to feminism and safe spaces I need to elaborate a bit more on my stance towards free speech.

It is safe to assume that the atheist community holds a liberal conception of free speech.  Generally, free speech is viewed as an unquestionable right.  We should allow the neo-Nazis and the Westboro Baptists to speak freely because restricting their rights to free speech has the potential to start a slippery-slope until no one has the right to speak, is how the argument generally goes.  All speech should be encouraged as exposure to a variety of different ideas is the best way to determine which one is right.  Truth will naturally win out in the end.

Liberal notions of free speech, however, face the problem of contradiction.  It is possible to find situations in which a group that champions freedom of speech will engage in tactics to silence speech when they find it unfavourable.  As an example, I refer readers to an incident that occurred on Reddit (a supposed bastion of free speech).  The short version is that the person who created /r/jailbait was outed by a writer for Gawker.  Reddit quickly flocked to defend the rights of the man to post pictures of underage girls.  Attempts to post the link to the Gawker article were actively censored.  I could also point to the United States as an example of a nation that supposedly enshrines free speech but has no problem censoring it when the speech in question might harm the agenda of the state.  The point is that those that champion free speech will not hesitate to actually silence speech when it may reveal an unfavourable fact about those champions.  It’s ok for someone to speak in a manner that is oppressive, hateful, or, in the case of the Redditor in the story, promotes child pornography.  Speaking out against this speech though?  Unacceptable.  Granted, this doesn’t apply to all advocates for free speech.  They’ll agree that this hypocritical behaviour is unacceptable.  However, the problem of whether all speech should be free remains.

My contention with the idea that free speech should be an unquestionable right, that all should be allowed to speak freely with no restrictions, is that I don’t buy into the notion that people who engage in oppressive and hateful speech should be allowed to speak.  Defense of racists, and misogynists is not something I want to advocate for.  I believe that we can place restrictions on speech without descending into a totalitarian dystopia.  Canada has not descended into a hell-hole because of the country’s hate speech laws.  As a community that wants to approach things critically we should be able to have a conversation over what constitutes hate speech and make reasons for why there is a benefit to restricting such speech.  Telling the misogynists that they can’t use gendered insults or threats of rape doesn’t mean we then turn around and say that you can’t make a few blasphemous statements.

To use an example that the atheist community can identify with, consider allowing a creationist into a biology class to say that evolution is false.  I’d be surprised to find many in this community that would disagree with the suggestion that we do not allow that to happen.  The school should actively restrict the ability of the creationist to talk about creationism in the biology class.  This is because the aim of a biology class should be to teach biology, not Christian myths.

So how does this apply to safe spaces for feminism in the atheist community?  It means keeping out the “trolls”.  Those who only want to derail the conversation and are more interested in insults and intimidation.  Further, this would help to ensure that such safe spaces remain a place to discuss feminism.

Now for some this may come across as an attempt to censor all criticisms of feminism, but this is not the case.  Criticism of feminism happens all the time, especially amongst feminists.  These are people who all come from different backgrounds and thus have different ideas about how feminists should act, how patriarchy should be addressed, and so on.  That sort of criticism is fine.  Here is where a critical approach comes into play.  At what point does the criticism cross the line from being constructive to disruptive?  I would argue that it starts with people that simply want to say that feminism is poisoning the atheist movement, who engage in logical fallacies to make their arguments, and goes on to the people that engage in gendered insults and threats of rape and death towards feminists in the community.  I believe that restricting this sort of speech should be permissible as it adds nothing of value to the conversation.  While I think it’s clear, at least to me, that such speech should be restricted.  The question of how to deal with the feminism 101 comments is a different matter.

First off, what do I mean by feminism 101 comments?  These are the sort of comments that ask the same old questions over and over again. E.g. “What about the men?”, “Aren’t you just engaging in reverse sexism?”, “Does patriarchy really exists?”, “I’m not a feminist but I believe in equality for both sexes”.  Sometimes the person asking the question is innocent enough, they honestly don’t know because they’ve never been involved in such a conversation.  However, most of the time this results from someone’s refusal to look up “Feminism 101” and find the answers to these questions that have been asked again, and again.  The questions become a way to derail the conversation and prevent feminists from moving on to more critical discussions about how they should move forward.  The restriction of feminism 101 comments would depend on the nature of the event/conversation.  If the purpose is to discuss feminism 101, then allow such comments.  If the purpose is to discuss how feminists should act, how patriarchy should be addressed, and so on then the feminism 101 comments are likely to be a distraction.  They should be discouraged if not actively restricted.

None of this has to occur at every single atheist conference.  It will largely be up to the organizers as to what restrictions they want to place on speech, if any at all.  The purpose of the conference and the beliefs of the organizers would likely dictate how far each conference goes to establish rules regarding speech.  The same thing goes for forums, blogs, and video comment sections.  The people running those sites are the ones who get the final say on what is permissible speech.  One point that some advocates for free speech miss is that these are private events/places.  This isn’t the government cracking down on your right to speak, it is another individual (or group) making rules for their place of gathering/discussion.  No one is forcing you to go to an event that has rules you disagree with.

Restrictions on speech should be made where we can agree that the speech causes more harm than good.  I do not think it is a loss to the community to keep hateful voices out.  Doing so may allow us to get back to conversations that really matter to us, rather than being bogged down in this conversation.

Safe Spaces (and more on feminism)

3 01 2013

Thunderf00t’s latest Youtube video, has been causing a stir in the blogosphere. In the video criticizes feminists within the atheist movement accusing them of bringing harm to it.  Now I’m not going to use this post to elaborate on why I disagree with Thunderf00t.  You can find a good rebuttal to the video, written by Michael Nugent, here. This recent episode of the debate over feminism in the atheist movement does provide a good backdrop to discuss “safe spaces”, which came up in a comment thread of Nugent’s article over on AAFW’s Facebook page.

The context here is that, as part of its focus, the Atheism + movement is seeking to create safe spaces.  Whether it be internet forums, or at the conferences themselves.  This post will focus on conferences as its where most of the controversy seems to becoming from.  I see two options to creating safe spaces each with their own strengths and weaknesses: 1) put stricter rules in place about how people behave at conferences, what they say, and who is allowed to attend 2) work harder to educate those who still have issues with the idea of a safe space, thus reducing the number of people opposed to them.

1) Put stricter rules in place about how people behave at conferences, what they say, and who is allowed to attend.

Conference organizers should be free to decide who they want at a conference, and what they say and do.  The organizers invest their time, and money into planning and hosting these events.  It is not unreasonable to suggest that they make the rules.  If you don’t like the rules, don’t go to the conference.  The conferences can be turned into safe spaces by controlling the environment.  Of course, the most apparent flaw with this option is that it’s an obvious stifling of free speech.  If there’s one thing the vast majority of the atheist movement agrees on it’s the concept of free speech.  Such measures would play right into the hands of people like Thunderf00t who would then have a fair reason to accuse Atheism + and feminists of trying to be “politically correct” and trying to silence free speech.  (Ignoring that, in his video, Thunderf00t more or less proposes the same thing by reaching out to secular leaders to deal with the problem of feminists in the movement.)  Unless an individual’s behaviour is clearly harassment, and is causing distress and harm to other conferences attendees, then it is unlikely that most in the atheist movement would opt for conferences that take this hardline approach.

I’m inclined to mention here that this would actually be my preferred approach.  I have issues with the liberal conception of free speech.  However, I’m well aware how unpopular this option is likely to be.  So I will move on and leave the discussion about free speech for another day.

2) Work harder to educate those who still have issues with the idea of a safe space, thus reducing the number of people opposed to them.

This is likely to be the preferred option amongst the atheist movement.  After all, it’s a movement that prides itself on educating others.  Spend more time informing people of why feminism is needed, what experiences have female atheists dealt with, what would it mean to have a “safe space”?, etc.  Obviously, this has already been done.  It’s been going on before feminism became such a controversial issue within the community back during the Elevatorgate incident.  So some could say that we have been educating people, and that it’s not working.  There will always be people that will hold to an anti-feminist position.  No matter what the evidence is, no matter how nicely it’s explained to them they are not going to turn around and say, “Hey, this feminism thing makes a lot of sense.  I can see why you bring these issues up again, and again”.  There are some out there that will never say those words.  Educating others is a nice sentiment but it can be a waste of time.  It comes from the belief that people just don’t know any better and that education will free them of their ignorance.  Unfortunately, people have reasons to hold the positions and beliefs they do other than ignorance.  It’s not that those anti-feminists are ignorant.  It’s that they are willfully so because they see the feminists as a great threat, and nothing is going to convince them otherwise.  This is why I lean towards Option 1.  Some people will never learn, and do not want to learn.  I’m personally not interested in listening to, or dealing with such people.  Again, I’m fully aware that this is likely a minority view amongst the generally liberal atheist movement.   At the very least, I put the idea forward for consideration even though I don’t expect it to be accepted.

The education option is not a complete waste, however.  There are those sitting on the fence.  People who are supportive of feminist ideals, but don’t refer to themselves as feminists for various reasons.  We can educate the fence sitters.  Here patience, and a civil tone is encouraged as we want to draw them towards, not push them away from, feminism and its role in the atheist movement.  We want them to understand why there is a need for safe spaces at conferences.  In time, the anti-feminists could be a lonely minority.

Review of Faitheist: How An Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious

19 12 2012

Atheism’s role in the interfaith movement is a contested one.  Those who are for it want to build bridges, and work towards common goals.  Those opposed to the involvement of atheists in the interfaith movement reject the idea that we should play nice with people we believe to be wrong.

The advocate for atheists to join the interfaith movement getting the most attention these days is Chris Stedman.  Whose book, Faitheist: How An Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, makes a case for why an interfaith movement that includes atheists is needed.  In this post, I’ll be offering my thoughts on the book.  I’ll approach this in two ways 1) what are my thoughts on the main argument of the book?, and 2) my opinion on the book as a piece of writing.  I should mention that I haven’t been paying attention to the debate in the blogosphere over Stedman’s book, or his work in the interfaith movement.  This has been due, mostly, to being tied down by school work among other things.  With that out of the way, time to get to the book.

The book opens with a quote from Carl Sagan that effectively sets the tone for Stedman’s central message:

 “The chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is its polarization: Us vs. Them – the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all those stupid doctrines are morons; that if you are sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, to hell with you.  This is nonconstructive.  It does not get our message across. It condemns us to minority status.”

Straightforward enough: Don’t treat those on the other side like idiots.  It’s an approach that will do more to make people despise you than support, or agree with, you.  On the surface, it’s not a controversial statement to make.  However, as Stedman discovered, there is resistance to playing nice with the religious.  While attending a party hosted by an atheist organization in Chicago, Stedman tried to make a point about not constantly bashing the religious.  This is where the word “Faitheist” comes in.  In the book it is defined as: “a derogatory term used against atheists interested in working with, rather than against the religious.”  I can’t say I have any idea as to how widespread this word has become in its usage.  Until hearing of Stedman’s book, I had never heard of the term though that’s a minor point.  It is, I believe, safe to say that there is controversy surrounding the suggestion that atheists should make nice with the religious and engage in interfaith activities.

Stedman shares the story of  his involvement in the interfaith movement, and his work to engage with the religious around, “shared values and collaborative action”, an approach I’m in favour of.  I find that it makes more sense to work with people of faith who share common views with you, than it is to work on tearing the whole faith down.   Stedman argues that, “Atheism must move beyond defining itself – both in thought and in practice – in opposition to religion”.  I both agree and disagree.  Atheism, almost by definition, can be in opposition to religion.  God vs. Don’t Believe in God.  Where I agree, is that even  with that clear divide we can still work with the religious towards common goals.  Stedman feels that spending all our time attacking religion ends up defining atheism as just being opposition to religion.  In doing so it fails in, “articulating Humanist values”.  There are more important issues and values to stand for than standing in opposition to everything religion represents.

We do need to work with the religious if we want to address the major issues of our time.  Climate change, poverty, war, hunger, oppression.  Those impact people of faith and non-faith, and to turn our noses up at the thought of working with the faithful on these issues is counter-productive.   For atheists, there’s another reason for wanting to work with the faithful as opposed to spending all our time going after religion’s faults.  Stedman feels that the harsh brand of atheism doesn’t help in making an argument that an ethical life is possible without a belief in God.  If we spend all our time focusing on why religion is bad, we haven’t automatically built a case for why non-belief is preferable

The atheist community can learn from the religious community despite our differences.  During his highschool years, Stedman drifted towards Christianity because the people in the local Christian group at his school offered him a sense of community, a place where he could belong.  Many atheists have caught on to this idea as atheist organizations spring up and create that community for other atheists.

One of the objections that has been raised towards atheism’s involvement in the interfaith movement has to do with the name itself.  “Interfaith” seems to exclude atheists.  Atheism isn’t a faith, after all.  The objection was recently brought up by Sarah Kaiser in a recent CFI On Campus post.  Earlier this term, I was part of an inter-club panel.  Various representatives from student clubs had a chance to share their stories, and talk about the purpose of their club.  The panel was organized by the Christian organization: Power 2 Change.  While the event itself was not explicitly advertised as a religious event, a majority of the audience questions were religiously-based because people associate Power 2 Change with religion.  This made it difficult for the clubs that weren’t religious to give a straight answer to the question.  So I can understand the concern of associating an event with religion.  It can put the non-religious members into a tough spot as not every aspect of the event will apply to them.  Further, some people may start developing the wrong idea about atheism.  They could come to mistake it as another religion, a misconception atheists have been working to correct for some time.

Stedman’s response to the objection is that, in his experience, no one at an interfaith event has ever been confused as to whether atheism is a religion.  No one actually believes atheism to be a religion.  I do think he could have done more to address the word “interfaith”, perhaps suggesting an alternative term.  He sticks to the word because it, “is currently the most-recognized term to describe activities that bring the religious and non-religious together for dialogue and common work.  It doesn’t really address the fact that the word does have a misleading appearance, but perhaps atheists shouldn’t get hung up over the word.  Those involved in the movement aren’t under any illusions as to what atheism stands for.  We should, as Stedman argues, engage with the religious.  Refusal to do so closes off bridges to understanding.

Another concern atheists have with the interfaith movement is that our involvement means having to play nice.  That we have to leave our “real opinions at the door”.  Stedman contends that this is far from the case.  The religious members of the interfaith movement are fully aware that atheists disagree with them precisely because the atheists share their beliefs.  “Interfaith” does not mean keeping quiet about what atheists think.  In exchange, atheists have a chance to learn more about why the religious believe what they believe.  This is not the same as accepting the belief to be true, at the end of the day people in the interfaith movement are allowed to disagree.

There’s a practical reason for engaging with the religious rather than taking the “us vs. them” approach:  It’s better for atheism’s image.  Spending all our time dressing people down for their beliefs is going to anger them.  Unless it’s the goal of certain atheists to ensure we remain disliked, then the tactics need to change.  Now for atheists that want to focus on eliminating religion, perhaps this doesn’t matter.  When there are no religious left it’s not going to matter what they think of atheists.  I’m not overly supportive of the “eliminate religion” approach.  Preferring to side with Stedman where he says, “I work to promote critical thinking, education, religious liberty, compassion, and plularism and to fight tribalism, xenophobia, and fanaticism”.  Further, those wishing to eliminate religion need to understand why people turn to religion.  “They are idiots”, is not a good answer and offers no useful insights.

Now let’s move on to looking at the book as a piece of writing.

The central message of Stedman’s book is one that I find myself in agreement with, however, I’m hesitant to suggest that people buy and read the entire book.  This is because the book comes off as being way too self-indulgent.  This book is the autobiography of a relatively unknown person who is only 25.  It is the type of the book that should be written by someone of fame, who has lived long enough to have a life-story to tell.  Stedman is not unaware of this, pointing out towards the end of the book that a memoir at the age of 25 may be questionable.  However, the self-awareness doesn’t save the book from the fact that it spends too much time being about Stedman.

Yes, I understand that the book is about his personal journey so the stories do have relevance to the central message about interfaith.  My problem lies with the fact that much of the story-telling is padded out.  For example, Stedman shares the story of grandmother over a couple of pages to eventually reach the conclusion that his grandmother played a strong role in shaping his views.  The story could have been condensed into a paragraph that said something along the lines of, “My grandmother played an influential role in shaping my views”, and go on to list those views.  Another example that sticks out in my mind has to be the story of Stedman’s first kiss with a partner that played a significant role in helping to overcome his self-doubts about his sexuality.  Really, that’s all the reader needs to know.  Instead, the reader has to be taken along through Stedman’s personal journal.  Meaning that the reader gets a detailed recounting of the moment and actions that led up to the kiss.  All I could think when reading this was, “Just say that you kissed him.  I’m not interested in all the minute details of this event”.  There are limits to self-indulgence, and reading the intimate details of Stedman’s early love life isn’t what I’m looking for in a book advertised as a lesson on interfaith works.

The two examples I went through here are not the only instances of unnecessary padding.  The book is filled with stories that could have been condensed into a paragraph or two, and the reader would still get the central message.  The padding stretches out an already short book, which causes me to question whether this book had to be written.  The content related to the interfaith movement could be condensed into a long essay.  If you want to learn more about the interfaith movement, and the debate surrounding it, I suggest reading various blog articles.  You’re likely to come across the ideas put forward in this book, and you don’t have to read someone’s memoirs in the process.

Civil Discourse

13 12 2012

Debates are a thing this community has always held a knack for.  We tend to pride ourselves on the ability of our debaters to go up against, for example, someone spewing out creationist nonsense.  To take the arguments of the other side, and reduce them to a joke.  From time to time, the debate can shift from civil to more hostile tones.  This is inherent in the nature of a debate.  The purpose of which is to convince the audience that you are right, no matter how you go about doing it.  Debates are also about entertainment.  It likely says a few negative things about our society, but we enjoy when a debate has an air of hostile combat about it.  One thing we shouldn’t lose sight of in the excitement of a good debate, however, is the need for civil discourse.

I’m not advocating for debates to become more civil.  Given what I just said regarding the nature of the debates, and how they can foster a more hostile situation, I’m not going to focus on them.  Rather, I want to focus on civil discourse more generally when it comes to discussions that members of the community engage in.  Part of this discussion is likely to tie into the “tone” debate that has been occurring within atheist circles since the rise of the New Atheism, and continues with the emergence of Atheism+ though I don’t plan on discussing either of those specifically.

No one should be expected to maintain a perfectly civil manner throughout conversations with people they find disagreeable.  It is inevitable that in the course of stating your opinions, and engaging with others who do the same, that you will come across someone with an opinion so disagreeable, so out there, just plain wrong that your patience will begin to break down.  Other times, you will find yourself arguing with the same person over the exact same issue.  Again, and again, and again until you can no longer stand to have the conversation that you know will go absolutely nowhere.  Finally, there are the opinions that contribute to hatred and intolerance.  Ideas of intolerance that should not be tolerated, and I don’t see anything wrong in not showing respect to such views.   However, the general rule should be one of civility.

To use an example of civility relevant to our community, I’ll refer to a couple of discussions that recently took place on AAFW’s Facebook page.  Both of these discussions could, I think, act as examples of how to be civil.  They weren’t perfect in their civility, of course.  In the first discussion, the word “bullshit” was tossed around a few times.  Godwin’s law was also fulfilled though that didn’t occur until very late in the discussion at which point the conversation looked like it was starting to go in circles.   The second discussion focused on evolution.  Questions were posed to the group by a creationist.  Like the first conversation, it wasn’t perfect.  Yet, the members of the group did what they could to answer the questions that were put forward.  They didn’t resort to dismissing the individual on the spot.

The point of civil discourse is to advance your position without causing the other side to doubt their own self-worth.  It’s not always easy to do this.  Especially in the case of, as mentioned, people who hold views that foster hate and intolerance.  I find it hard to swallow the idea that such opinions deserve any measure of respect though those ideas are the exception to the rule: Try not to insult other people.  An essay-length post explaining why a person’s position against evolution is wrong (that really happened, multiple times) is always better than simply dismissing the person right away.  They may not like the long-response, and there’s nothing that can be done about that, but in the end, an attitude of a civility will go a lot further in bringing people into the community than hostility ever will.



Teenage Mental Health

6 12 2012

Mental health is an issue I’ve dedicated numerous blog posts to over the past year or so.  It may be reaching the point where I’m starting to sound a bit repetitive (and it may not always be clear how it ties to atheism though that shouldn’t stop atheists from caring about the issue), but I have personal reasons for wanting to bring this subject up from time to time.  So, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, here are some more thoughts on mental health.

Over at Freethought Blogs, Miriam has written a piece on teenage mental health.  The article opens with the following:

There’s a disturbing and pervasive idea out there that the psychological troubles of teenagers are inconsequential and unworthy of attention because they’re just a part of “teen angst” or “growing up” or whatever.

Right away, the article hits home.  Looking back on my teen years, it certainly felt like I was going through the “teen angst” stage.  Anger and misery were common feelings.  I often thought of those emotions as being related to the general difficulties of growing up along with the challenges I was dealing with at the time.  It wouldn’t be until a few years later, when I started talking to health professionals about depression and anxiety, that I was able to realize that those emotions I was going through in the teenage years may have been more than just “angst”.  I wonder how many cases of teenage mental health are ignored because it is viewed as “angst”?

Miriam goes on to say:

Painting all teenage mood problems in a single shade of “teen angst” can prevent teens with diagnosable mood disorders from seeking help, because they either second-guess themselves and conclude that what they’re experiencing is “normal” (read: healthy) or they try to get help but are rebuffed by well-meaning adults who tell them that this is just what adolescence is and that they’ll grow out of it.

And then, of course, they find that it doesn’t get better after adolescence, and sometimes they tragically conclude that they must simply not have “grown up” yet. (Again, count me among them.)

The dismissive attitude of adults is troubling, and worth noting that it can carry on into adult life where stigma against mental health still exists, in those years we look to adults for guidance.  When the guidance is poor and dismissive, the teen will feel even more isolated.

The “It Gets Better” messaging is also problematic, as Miriam points out.  You set yourself up for a harsh hit from reality when you reach the stage where things are supposed to “get better” and they don’t.  Having hopes, only to watch them dissolve will make the situation worse.

Second, mental issues do not need to have reached clinical levels to be unpleasant, troubling, and inconvenient. Any time you’re unhappy with some aspect of your emotions, moods, thoughts, or behaviors, that’s a good enough reason to seek help from a therapist. Seriously. Either the therapist will help you accept aspects of yourself that you’d been bothered by, or they will help you change those aspects. Whether or not those aspects have a fancy name in the DSM isn’t really relevant.

Do not wait for someone to tell you that your mental health condition has reached a clinical level before seeking various forms of health.  Getting help while your health is relatively stable is better than waiting for the worst possible situation.  Just like you go to get a check-up for your physical health, go get one for your mental health.

Nobody thinks it’s weird that virtually every teenager (who can afford it) goes to a dentist and has their wisdom teeth checked and probably removed. Nobody thinks it’s weird that virtually every female-bodied teenager (who can afford it) starts seeing a gynecologist when they become sexually active. Nobody thinks it’s weird that people of all ages regularly get physicals and get their eyesight and hearing checked.

It is expected that everyone will need (and, hopefully, receive) treatment for some sort of physical ailment over the course of their lives. Yet the idea that even a sizable minority of people will need treatment for a mental problem still gets many people ranting about how we ought to just “snap out of it.”

Hopefully, there will come a time when talking about mental health among teens becomes easier for all the parties involved.  As easy as going to the dentist to get their wisdom teeth checked and removed. (Well maybe that’s a bad example, wisdom teeth removal is not fun – at least it wasn’t me).

Are some teenagers actually “over-dramatic” (whatever that even means)? Probably. But it’s hard to tell who’s being over-dramatic and who isn’t, which is why that’s a decision best left to a professional. I was constantly accused of being “over-dramatic” when I was a teenager.

I must admit that during my teenage years, I had friends who I felt were just being “over-dramatic” that there were in a mood that they’d get over in a few days.  Thinking back to those days now, another explanation comes up.  Those people were dealing with a mental health issue.  One I never saw because I never stood, because I bought into that stigma that people just need to toughen up, and to stop feeling so miserable about their lives because, hey, it can’t be that bad.  Can it?  Let’s hope that through education we can prevent other teens from holding such attitudes.  Mental health stigma involves myths that need to be addressed in order to eliminate the incorrect beliefs people hold about them.  I’ll end this post with the closing paragraphs of Miriam’s piece as I believe they offer the advice everyone should walk away with when they finish reading this post:

If a teenager mentions or threatens suicide, take them seriously and help them get treatment. If they turn out to have been “over-dramatic,” a therapist can help them figure out why they threaten suicide hyperbolically and find a way to stop. That’s a therapist’s job, not a friend’s, teacher’s, or parent’s.

The belief that the thoughts and feelings of children and teenagers are not to be taken seriously is widespread and dangerous, and goes far beyond just mental health. It is far better to take someone seriously and get them help when they didn’t really need it than to ignore someone’s call for help and attention when they do need it.



4 12 2012

Back in my highschool days, when I was the young, angry atheist who felt that no good can come of religion, that it was a poison that harms all it touches, I was excited to open the pages of Hitchens’ book god Is Not Great.  I had recently watched an interview with Hitchens, and was thrilled to hear someone speaking so critically of religion.  To finally see and hear someone putting words to my anger was a relief.  Until I reached the part of the book in which he wrote favourably about the Iraq War, that is.  I had that sinking feeling.  How could someone like this support an idea as terrible as the Iraq War? Of course I could answer that question today, but back then I was young and naive.  The experience taught me early on to avoid putting anyone up on that pedestal.  To avoid committing acts of hero-worship.  I needed to remember that no one, no matter how much I may agree with them on a single issue, is above criticism and that a good idea on the one had does not guarantee a good idea coming from the other.

Hero-worship in the atheist community is an interesting concept.  For one, we don’t often think of atheists as having heroes to be up on a pedestal.  The idea of making idols out of the big name figures in the movement seems antithetical that a group that rejects the dogmatic following of an individual.  Yet, ever since Richard Dawkins’ infamous “muslima” comment directed towards the feminist-wing of the movement the discussion of hero-worship has swirled around in the blogosphere.

Readers are likely already familiar with Dawkins’ comments and there’s no need to restate them here, as the incident as been documented to death among atheist bloggers.  The incident does act as an example of hero-worship, in the sense of how we can feel a certain sense of dismay when our heroes come out and say something we find to be incredibly disagreeable.  I’m not suggesting that this is how everyone reacted to Dawkins’ comments.  Plenty of people were on his side, others weren’t exactly shocked that the male academic was somewhat disconnected from the modern feminist movement.  However, I’m sure that, for some, such comments from a man who champions reason were viewed as disappointing.   Another example was Thunderf00t, often praised for his “Why People Laugh at Creationists” series on Youtube he caused people to sigh, or just scratch their heads when he used his new platform on Freethought Blogs to decry the concerns of sexual harassment at conferences.

Discovering that the person you hold great respect and admiration for does not share all of your views can be difficult.  We want to believe that those we view as intelligent, attractive(yes, it is a factor), and popular hold views similar to ours.  Some comments made by Ayaan Hirsi Ali have been making the rounds recently:

I will give you the example of the man who murdered Theo van Gogh, who was on welfare. Based on that principle, a 26-year-old, healthy young man, and what I took from that and I think what many Dutch people learned from that is he had the time to plot a murder, which in the United States he would not be.

He would be busy trying to feed himself and find a roof over his head. And so the idea that the free market makes the rich richer, the poor poorer, that creates a class antagonism and that that will become a showdown between the two classes and you’re going to have the crime rate go up, and anyway the rich people deserve it. Why don’t they share? I think it’s too simplistic and it’s been tried all over again. It shows that that’s not really how it works (Source).

The comments demonstrate that Ali holds a very, very right-wing view on economics.  Many in the atheist community find Ali’s personal story to be one of admiration.  A tale that demonstrates the worst religion has to offer, and how one can triumph over it. However, these recent comments are, in the words of Andrew Tripp, “sickening”.  Indeed they were, but are they surprising?  Ali works with the right-wing American Enterprise Institute and belongs to a fairly right-wing party.  In many ways, she’s not a whole lot different than the screaming heads over on Fox News that liberal atheists love to chide.  Yes, she’s an atheist (who wants us to work with Christians to deal with radical Islam, for some reason).  Yes, her life-story offers a reason (somewhat) for why she holds the views she does, but at the end of the day she’s just another right-winger, spewing right-wing nonsense.  None of this should come as a surprise.  Ayaan Hirsi Ali is just the latest example of why hero-worship is ill advised.  We need to stop engaging in these acts of worship, and focus on being critical of everyone even our fellow atheists.




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