Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Why the experience of anti-atheist prejudice is different, though similar, to prejudice regarding sexual orientation, race, gender, etc.

At a post over at on the purging of the most vile homophobic elements from the mainstream anti-marriage equality movement, I made a comment as to how this signals a movement into "dog whistle politics" regarding LGBTQ issues, where it is no longer okay to blame it all on those evil gays, but new codewords creep in like "traditional family" and "special rights". I felt the need to qualify my comment thusly:

(Disclaimer: As a straight white male, I've never felt the sting of having a mainstream politician call me less-than-human in cleverly veiled terms. I can't imagine...)

Except that I have felt that sting, sort of. One need not look far to find plenty of examples of mainstream politicians demonizing atheists in truly shocking ways. For an admittedly not-that-recent example, look at Bush Sr.'s infamous remarks about whether atheists should even be citizens.

But I can't shake the feeling that it's just not the same. It doesn't cut me as deeply as I think it would to have my race, my sexual orientation, my gender classed as sub-human. And I got to thinking: why is that?

I think it comes down to two major factors: Degree of choice, and "believing" vs. "being".

Now note I said "degree of choice", not "choice". At this point, atheism is not really a choice for me per se. I could no more decide at this moment to believe in god(s) than I suspect you, dear reader, could choose at this very moment to believe in the Keebler Elves. Oh sure, you might freely choose to proclaim an allegiance to Ernie and the gang any time you wish, but you wouldn't sincerely mean it.

But I suspect that if you really dearly wanted to believe in the Elves... If you told yourself every day that they were real, if you surrounded yourself with others who shared the same forthright belief, if you fervently tried to make yourself believe, one day I suspect you'd wake up and be quite certain of the magical origin of Keebler cookies. It might be a more tenuous faith, you might be more inclined to inwardly question it than those who had been Keeblerites since birth or had experienced a more organic conversion to Keeblerism. But I bet if you really wanted, you could pull it off.

To do the same thing in regards to one's race or one's gender is patently absurd. And as we now know from dearly-bought experience, attempting to do so in regard to one's sexual orientation is ineffective, dangerous, and often deadly.

My atheism is something less than a free choice, but it is somewhat more of a choice than are race, gender, sexual preference. I am an atheist because it is what seems to me to be the clear truth. I cannot change it as easily as I could change my shirt or my hair color or the restaurant I go to most often... but I probably could change it with sufficient time and effort, if sufficiently motivated.

The other difference is harder to get at, and I fear I am verging on a form of Cartesian dualism here... But I really think there is a subtle difference between what you are and what you believe.

To explain what I mean, consider a person who is a straight-up communist, and somewhat of an activist at that. If she is really sincere about her communist beliefs, it may be no more of a choice than is my atheism: She could insincerely declare her mind changed at any time, and she may at some time be sincerely argued out of it (and I naively hope she would; I find communism to be about as sensible a position as laissez faire capitalism, i.e. not very -- but this is an irrelevant digression and I will say no more about it), yet if she really believes in her cause at 8:32PM on Wednesday, she cannot simply "decide" not to believe in it at 8:33PM on Wednesday.

And there is no question that many Americans consider communists to be less-than-human. Yet somehow it feels like that stings a lot less than racial prejudice or anti-gay prejudice or misogyny. There's just something about what you think about things, especially when it is ostensibly for rational reasons, that makes criticism of it seem less hurtful than something which you are -- even when the distinction between identity and belief is fuzzy.

Perhaps it doesn't matter that this reeks of dualism; we are all de facto dualists in our day-to-day lives, after all, and since this post is all about perception, perhaps the fact that we usually perceive ourselves as dualists is enough to justify this perception.

In any case, I do think there are differences, and as such I think I still cannot claim to know what it feels like to be a member of a group whose very identity is (or recently has been) denigrated by the mainstream. There are a lot of ways in which anti-atheist prejudice is similar -- there's been much talk about how the "coming out" analogy works very well for atheism as well, for example -- but I think the experience of it is different in some crucial ways.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

BREAKING NEWS: Richard Dawkins holds a gene-centric view of evolution

At a recent debate with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Richard Dawkins shockingly revealed that he holds a gene-centric view of how natural selection operates.

After being asked whether he believes the organism is the basic unit of selection, Dawkins replied, "Well no, I rather think the gene is the basic unit of selection."

The philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny, who chaired the discussion, interjected: “Why don’t you call yourself a geneticist?”

An incredulous Sir Anthony replied: “You are described as the world’s most famous zoologist.”

Later asked for comment, Dawkins replied, "I don't really understand what the surprise is. After all, this was basically the point of perhaps my most or second most famous book, The Selfish Gene. The next thing you know the headlines will be blaring about some point or other that I had already made explicit in The God Delusion."

Religious leaders later characterized Dawkins' reaction as "strident", "militant", and "exactly as bad as the 9/11 hijackers." "Faith traditions have a very long tradition of mischaracterizing Dawkins and leveling unfair criticisms at him," said Catholic League spokesman Bill Donohue. "By attempting to correct these misconceptions, he has sullied the beliefs of literally billions of believers."

"Why can't he just shut the fuck up and take it," added Baroness Warsi.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Mardell's False Balance

Mark Mardell is the BBC's North America editor, who does a column called "Mardell's America" offering a look at American politics. I occasionally appreciate the column, but too often he just seems to be bending over backwards to try to makes his voice "unbiased" as the average American might perceive it -- which is quite a trick for a Brit since, as Mardell very well knows, the American "center" is way to the right of the European center. So many of his columns start to exude a vague "WTF is up with these Americans?!"-ness, which he promptly quashes by mumbling something about how the right-wingers maybe have a point.

His latest column has this annoying tendency on full display:

I haven't read [Pat Buchanan's] book, but judging from extracts it is easy to see how his pungently expressed anti-multiculturalism could be seen as racist.

But I do know the sort of views he is expressing are shared by many American conservatives who think their culture is under attack (just look at the comments on his blog, if you don't believe me)...Conservative views that seem very far to the right by British standards are all over the place - from blogs, to right-wing talk radio, and above all on Fox News.

So he seems to get it: The American right is full of scary racist shit. But then:

There is a grave danger for American democracy that the two parties not only can't agree, they can't even discuss.

Left and right live in their little ghettos of the mind, unwilling to listen to anything that doesn't reinforce their own views. If you only hear what your opponents are thinking through the warp of second-hand caricatures, then there is no chance of understanding their point of view.

"Ghettos of the mind", is it? "Second-hand caricatures"?

Or could it be that the American right wing is batshit crazy, and their "point of view" is not really understandable to begin with?

Just sayin'...

Friday, February 17, 2012


So you may have heard of that infamous horse head mask on Amazon. I wanted one as soon as I saw it, but figured it was a frivolous waste of money... until my wife and I had had a few too many on Valentine's Day, and suddenly it seemed like we couldn't afford not to own a horse head mask. Here's a couple pictures of me wearing it:

There's this "society thinks/parents think/really am" etc. meme going around, that you've probably seen. I decided to jump on the bandwagon and create a couple. The first is really meta (and probably too honest). And the second combines my new obsessions with the horse head mask!

And last but not least, a blurry picture of the X-ray of the screws and wire in my elbow. I am hoping to get a higher quality scan soon...