Notes and Comment Blog


Mar 25th, 2013 5:37 pm | By

Desperate Syrian women who find themselves refugees in Jordan can…sell themselves or their daughters, for usually a very small sum of money.

Her daughter Aya is their best hope.

“My daughter is willing to sacrifice herself for her family,” Nezar says. “If the war had not happened I would not marry my daughter to a Saudi. But the Syrians here are poor and have no money.”

Nezar’s daughter is 17. The Saudi groom is 70.

Maybe he’ll turn out to be a nice guy.

The surplus of desperate Syrian refugees means marriage has become a buyer’s market with some grooms offering as little as $100 cash for a bride.

The legal age of marriage in Jordan is 18 but some religious clerics will marry underage girls for a small fee. This puts the girls at even greater risk for exploitation because some of Um Majed’s clients want a temporary union lasting a few weeks or months after which the girl is returned to her parents.

In other words, it is religiously sanctioned prostitution.

“One of my brides has been married three, four times,” Um Majed says. “She is 15.”

So her family maybe got 400 whole dollars out of the deal.

“I have 10 families looking for grooms,” she says. “Their girls are between 12 and 21. The grooms are always in their 40s, 50s, or 70s. They want beautiful girls, the younger the better.”

She pauses and takes a drag of the cigarette.

“The Saudis usually ask for 12-year-olds.”

Oh do they.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Thinking fast and slow and gun lobby

Mar 25th, 2013 4:23 pm | By

David Robert Grimes has the unmitigated temerity to consider evidence for claims that guns make us safer.

Academics such as John Lott and Gary Kleck have long claimed that more firearms reduce crime. But is this really the case? Stripped of machismo bluster, this is at heart a testable claim that merely requires sturdy epidemiological analysis. And this was precisely what Prof Charles Branas and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania examined in their 2009 paper investigating the link between gun possession and gun assault. They compared 677 cases in which people were injured in a shooting incident with 684 people living in the same area that had not suffered a gun injury. The researchers matched these “controls” for age, race and gender. They found that those with firearms were about 4.5 times more likely to be shot than those who did not carry, utterly belying this oft repeated mantra.

Yes but that’s all those other people. That’s statistics. I am different. If I had a gun I would use it the right way and never get overconfident or belligerent and never accidentally shoot my foot off. By the same token, if I opened a restaurant, it would succeed, and if I gambled invested in the stock market, I would make millions, and if I smoked, I would get healthier.

This result is not particularly unexpected. Prof David Hemenway of Harvard school of public health has published numerous academic investigations in this area and found that such claims are rooted far more in myth than fact. While defensive gun use may occasionally occur successfully, it is rare and very much the exception – it doesn’t change the fact that actually owning and using a firearm hugely increases the risk of being shot. This is a finding supported by numerous other studies in health policy, including several articles in the New England Journal of Medicine. Arguments to the contrary are not rooted in reality; the Branas study also found that for individuals who had time to resist and counter in a gun assault, the odds of actually being shot actually increased to 5.45 fold relative to an individual not carrying.

Well…the thing to do then is just make sure that the people who can affect the legislation are hindered from finding out about all these pesky studies.

Until the 1990s, research into gun violence wasn’t a threat to the gun lobby, because it essentially didn’t exist. Most policymakers and public-health specialists viewed gun injuries simply as accidents that couldn’t be prevented.

But a group of CDC researchers disagreed, viewing gun injuries instead as predictable and preventable—and seeing a desperate need for rigorous research into how reduce them.

“We said, there’s two injuries that are the leading cause of death in the U.S. right now: cars and guns,” recalled Mark Rosenberg, who helped establish the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC), in part to study gun violence. “We spend hundreds of millions on cars, we spend nothing on guns.”

And so, the NCIPC began collecting data on gun violence, as well as funding outside research on the subject, including the two studies led by Kellermann. “It was producing very, very helpful information,” said Rosenberg.

But in doing so, thanks in part to the Kellerman studies, the agency provoked the ire of the gun lobby. After Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, lawmakers allied with the NRA zeroed in on the NCIPC. “There was an immediate push not just to stop gun research, but to terminate the entire center,” Kellermann recounted.

Shoot that god damn messenger, eh?

Ultimately, NCIPC survived, but in 1996, Rep. Jay Dickey, an Arkansas Republican and the NRA’s point man in Congress, engineered an effort to cut $2.6 million from its budget—exactly the amount it had spent on gun violence research the previous year. (The funding was later restored by the Senate, but earmarked for traumatic brain injury, ensuring it couldn’t be used for gun violence work.) And the following sentence was added to the law funding CDC: “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

No stinkin’ research for them. Shut it down.

Shaming, isn’t it.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Learn to spot the signs

Mar 25th, 2013 2:53 pm | By

Remember the Islamic University of Gaza? That the LSE Student Union twinned with a few days ago? The Boston Globe did quite a flattering piece on it in February 2010.

The first sign that this is a different place from the Western universities it resembles comes when a bell rings in the library. Quickly the students on odd-numbered floors  – all men  – gather their books and file into the stairwells. Women file in to take their turn. In keeping with a puritanical interpretation of Islamic law, men and women aren’t allowed to study together, so they switch floors every two hours. They lounge in separate student unions and eat in separate cafeterias. At intervals during the day, the call to prayer sounds from the minarets of the campus mosque, and classes come to a halt.

Their strict observance might sound extreme, but the Islamic University is no fringe institution: It’s the top university in Gaza. The majority of students here study secular topics; not all of them are even religious. If you want to get a degree in Gaza, a territory that is home to more than a million people, it’s simply the best place to go.

At the same time, the university is something else again: the brain trust and engine room of Hamas, the Islamist movement that governs Gaza and has been a standard-bearer in the renaissance of radical Islamist militant politics across the Middle East. Thinkers here generate the big ideas that have driven Hamas to power; they have written treatises on Islamic governance, warfare, and justice that serve as the blueprints for the movement’s political and militant platforms. And the university’s goal is even more radical and ambitious than that of Hamas itself, an organization devoted primarily to war against Israel and the pursuit of political power. Its mission is to Islamicize society at every level, with a focus on Gaza but aspirations to influence the entire Islamic world.

The language is…odd. It’s odd to talk of a “renaissance of radical Islamist militant politics.” Do newspapers talk about a “renaissance of fascist militant politics”? I don’t think they do, I think they use words like return or resurgence or rise instead of renaissance.

In recent decades, as Islamism has grown from a set of isolated radical movements to a fully realized political philosophy, its powerful fusion of intellect, pragmatism, and fundamentalist faith has refashioned societies from the Gulf to Turkey, Egypt to Pakistan. For outsiders who want to understand its power and appeal, the Islamic University of Gaza is probably the best place to begin.

There again. The wording veils the sinister quality of the “ fully realized political philosophy” that’s at stake here.

When the Islamic University was founded in 1978, there wasn’t a single institution of higher education in the Gaza Strip. Its founders were members of the militant Muslim Brotherhood, believers that society should be organized according to Koranic principles, and they conceived the university as a sort of greenhouse for their brand of pure, uncompromising Islamism.

There again. Evasive. Silent about what kind of “pure, uncompromising” we’re talking about.

The male students wear the uniform of contemporary Islamism: pressed dress shirts, modest polyester jackets, baggy trousers, clean-shaven faces or short, trimmed beards. The women all wear head scarves. Their dress and professional demeanor are meant to connote not only modesty and seriousness of purpose, but also engagement with the modern world. Like Hamas, the university embodies a brand of Islamism advanced through earnest, utilitarian labor, not by a radical rejection of modernity. The prayer beads and austere white robes of the otherworldly Salafist movement are as unusual here as they would be on a totally secular campus.

That’s “engagement with the modern world”? Gender segregation, all women in hijab? That’s not the modern world that I know of.

To the extent that students rebel here, it’s against what they view as the secular excesses of the outside world. These university students support arranged marriage, Saudi-style morality police, and a hard-line theology that sees even their own religious parents as insufficiently pious. This campus culture might surprise an American or European public steeped in a history of libertine student activism, but in the Arab world for half a century, the idea of rebellion against authority has been closely associated with Islamists, the only constituency prepared to confront the region’s ossified authoritarian dictators.

This kind of activism meshes perfectly with the university’s most ambitious goals. “Our role as a university is to empower people, by teaching them to reform their lives in line with the revolutionary side of religion,” explains the associate dean, a British-educated political scientist named Waleed Al Modallal.

This marks a change for Palestinian society, which traditionally has bred political militancy but not religious fanaticism. Today new generations of Palestinian leaders are steeped not only in the struggle against Israel, but in a current of Islamist thought. The young learn the benefits of prayer, a lifestyle free of alcohol and fornication, and ultimately, Modallal says, will embrace Islamism in all aspects of life, from armed resistance against Israel to quotidian matters like marriage and banking.

Libertine? Fornication?

In any field  – including math, engineering, and medicine  – scholars are expected to consult the Koran, or Islamic jurists, as well as academic texts. In the natural sciences, the results don’t look all that different from scholarship in the West, such as a recent research study that assessed the value of a particular protein for diagnosing rheumatoid arthritis. But in the social sciences, the imperative of hard-line Sunni Islam has yielded a body of work with a nearly Soviet ideological rigidity and predictability. One paper in the Series of Islamic Studies “proves” that a country’s social development increases in proportion to the number of people who memorize the Koran. Another considers and dismisses Shia Muslim conceptions of the attributes of God for “contradicting the Koran” and other canonical Islamic texts.

Many students at the Islamic University see themselves as a privileged elite with an obligation to help the transnational “ummah,” or global Islamic community. Almost every student I met  – I was only allowed to speak to men  – expressed a desire to continue his studies abroad.

Dude! You were only “allowed” to speak to men! That is not “engagement with the modern world.”


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

He was just trying to compliment you

Mar 25th, 2013 11:53 am | By

Ah yes – the ever-popular “random man tells woman to smile” number.

When I did not smile (I continued looking for my keys in my purse and avoided all eye contact, in fact), he told me my “pretty face was going to waste.”

Ah, no. It’s not. It’s being put to good use keeping her eyes in their right place so that she can see to find her keys and make her way around, and keeping her mouth where it belongs so that she can eat. It’s not going to waste at all. Its function isn’t to provide something for that random man.

There are lots of comments. Some are interesting.

  • A guy did this to me recently as I passed him on a sidewalk, and I was so thrown that I actually did smile a little. Then he frowned and said “No, that looks fake.”
  • Oh, god. I don’t even want to see the array of comments about how dude meant no harm, feminists are crazy, yadda yadda. You people don’t get it. It’s basically a command to play cute for a random guy. Hard to imagine a random street guy telling another man to smile? There’s a reason for that. Fume.
  • It must be tricky to get through each day when every interaction is forcibly turned into a power struggle.

    He was just trying to compliment you.  He did not literally mean your face is a waste unless you are smiling.  All he did was call you pretty.  You brought all the drama.

    I love how people say the Seattle Freeze is not real when I read things like this.  This could not be more passive aggressive.

He, a complete stranger and random person, was just trying to compliment you. And we all want complete strangers trying to compliment us on our appearance (by ordering us to smile)?

Think, people. It’s not that difficult.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

What blocks empathy?

Mar 25th, 2013 10:08 am | By

It can be so puzzling, looking back at even quite recent history, trying to figure out “what were they thinking?” What were the people who ran Irish industrial “schools” thinking when they treated the children like shit? What were the people who screamed abuse outside Little Rock High School in 1957 thinking? What were the people who owned slaves thinking? What were the people who sold slaves thinking? What were the people who captured human beings and sold them into slavery thinking?

What were the people who stole children from unmarried mothers in Australia thinking?

Hundreds of mothers and their families gathered yesterday to hear a historic national apology from Australia’s prime minister Julia Gillard. Forced to give up their babies, these women were among the thousands of young mothers who endured a cruel and often illegal approach by governments, churches, hospitals and charities towards pregnancy out of wedlock in Australia from the 1950s to the 1970s, whereby unmarried mothers were coerced or deceived into giving up their babies to adoption by married couples.

I could see what they were thinking if it were a question of pressure and persuasion. I wouldn’t agree with it, but I could see it. But it wasn’t a question of pressure and persuasion.

The stories are nightmarish – from the abandonment by furious families of frightened, pregnant daughters into homes for wayward girls, to the truly excruciating accounts of the births themselves, where young girls were drugged during labour and forcibly restrained with pillows over their faces so they could not see their babies as they were born. It says something about how intentional the shattering of the maternal bond was that mother and baby were not even allowed to lay eyes upon one another.

One mother interviewed in the Senate committee report described what it was like to know what was coming during your pregnancy:

“I’d lie in bed every night with my arms wrapped around my baby inside of me knowing that I would never hold him after birth. I’d feel his feet and hands through my own stomach as he moved around, knowing that I wasn’t ever going to feel them after he was born. I’d talk to him and tell him that I would find him again one day and that I and his father loved him.”

The more young women resisted, the greater the malice against them – babies were pulled from clinging arms, moved to different hospitals, and dishonestly recorded as dead so as to stop young women continuing to fight for them. For the mothers who experienced these events, even the term “forced adoption” is too soft; “kidnapping newborn babies” is how they describe it.

That’s why it’s hard to figure out what they were thinking: because you would think compassion or empathy would get in the way, and it’s hard to see what kind of thinking would trump the compassion or empathy.

Maybe disgust helped. Maybe they saw the girls and young women as so disgusting that it blocked or reduced the compassion or empathy. That probably answers the other ones, too. If you feel enough disgust or contempt or hatred for a person or set of people, then your capacity for empathy may be impaired.

Andie Fox goes on to say much the same thing, but in slightly different terms.

These stories illustrate a frightening capacity to dehumanise women from the institutions involved. That these women’s own communities would believe mothers could possibly get past an experience like that, let alone forget it entirely upon leaving the hospital, is extraordinary.

It is. Hence the “what were they thinking?” Disgust is probably part of the answer.

It seems to be very, very deeply-rooted, this ready disgust for women and girls in connection with sex.

Not surprisingly, the experience of forced adoption has for many led to pathological levels of grief. An abyss of trauma opened up in their lives that engulfed the babies’ fathers, other family members, future siblings, and in many cases even the adopting parents and adopted children themselves. One mother, Julienne, described her haunting loss: “I always felt the weight of a ghost baby on my arm and never left a room without feeling that I had left something behind”.

Disgust is the parent of a lot of monsters.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Foote was defying a longstanding taboo

Mar 24th, 2013 3:54 pm | By

I’m reading a little book published in 1982: Vision and Realism: a hundred years of The Freethinker, by Jim Herrick.

There are some things that sound very familiar, amusingly so.

Foote joined with G.J. Holyoake when the two of them started the Secularist in 1876. They parted after two months, differing over the extent to which religion should be attacked…[p 6]

Oh yes? So it’s not just us, and it’s not just Paul Kurtz and Madalyn Murray O’Hair. It feels vaguely reassuring to know that.

The extent to which freethought journals should be aggressively anti-Christian was – and has remained – contentious. [p 9]

And in Foote’s case it was so contentious that he was sent to prison for a year for “blasphemy.”

In criticising religion by ridicule and sarcasm, Foote was defying a longstanding taboo. He challenged the assumption, which even respectable agnostics held, that religious views should be treated with reverence. He sought to establish that religion is a social phenomenon which should be open to the same range of comment, from vigorous intellectual analysis to polemical jibes, as other aspects of human behaviour. [p 10]

Very familiar.



(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

It is revelation to that person only

Mar 24th, 2013 12:05 pm | By

I’ve always liked Thomas Paine’s point about revelation in The Age of Reason.

Every national church or religion has established itself by pretending some special mission from God, communicated to certain individuals. The Jews have their Moses; the Christians their Jesus Christ, their apostles and saints; and the Turks their Mahomet; as if the way to God was not open to every man alike.

Each of those churches shows certain books, which they call revelation, or the Word of God. The Jews say that their Word of God was given by God to Moses face to face; the Christians say, that their Word of God came by divine inspiration; and the Turks say, that their Word of God (the Koran) was brought by an angel from heaven. Each of those churches accuses the other of unbelief; and, for my own part, I disbelieve them all.

As it is necessary to affix right ideas to words, I will, before I proceed further into the subject, offer some observations on the word ‘revelation.’ Revelation when applied to religion, means something communicated immediately from God to man.

No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication if he pleases. But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and, consequently, they are not obliged to believe it.

It is a contradiction in terms and ideas to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second hand, either verbally or in writing. Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication. After this, it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him; and though he may find himself obliged to believe it, it cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner, for it was not a revelation made to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him.

When Moses told the children of Israel that he received the two tables of the commandments from the hand of God, they were not obliged to believe him, because they had no other authority for it than his telling them so; and I have no other authority for it than some historian telling me so, the commandments carrying no internal evidence of divinity with them. They contain some good moral precepts such as any man qualified to be a lawgiver or a legislator could produce himself, without having recourse to supernatural intervention. [NOTE: It is, however, necessary to except the declamation which says that God 'visits the sins of the fathers upon the children'. This is contrary to every principle of moral justice.—Author.]

When I am told that the Koran was written in Heaven, and brought to Mahomet by an angel, the account comes to near the same kind of hearsay evidence and second hand authority as the former. I did not see the angel myself, and therefore I have a right not to believe it.

When also I am told that a woman, called the Virgin Mary, said, or gave out, that she was with child without any cohabitation with a man, and that her betrothed husband, Joseph, said that an angel told him so, I have a right to believe them or not: such a circumstance required a much stronger evidence than their bare word for it: but we have not even this; for neither Joseph nor Mary wrote any such matter themselves. It is only reported by others that they said so. It is hearsay upon hearsay, and I do not chose to rest my belief upon such evidence.

1793, he wrote that. Yet it hasn’t sunk in yet.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Read better

Mar 24th, 2013 10:47 am | By

The “Atheist Missionary” came back, to do two more pointless tweets at me, because that works so well. His tweets went so:

Your “bend a knee” comment suggests @michaelshermer somehow bows to popular figures in freethought movement or …

…it suggests that @michaelshermer expects you to bow to him. Both suggestions are BS, IMHO.

That’s why it’s stupid to try to have complicated arguments on Twitter. Another reason is that he left as soon as he fired those shots. There are so many reasons it’s stupid to try to have complicated arguments on Twitter.

I told him

No it doesn’t. It’s in direct response to his claim about “our most prominent leaders.”

 But it was futile, because no reply. Why do people do this?

Anyway, to repeat – what I said was in direct reponse to what Shermer said.

Shermer however genuinely does seem to think that “prominence” should confer immunity to challenge. After he mentions the putative purge of “such prominent advocates as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris” he says that “I have stayed out of this witch hunt against our most prominent leaders.” Our what? Whose “leaders”? I don’t recall joining any army, or even a party. I don’t consider Dawkins and Harris my “leaders”; I don’t consider anyone that.

No, I’m sorry, that won’t do. I’m not going to bend the knee to “our most prominent leaders” and I’m not going to refrain from criticizing them and go looking for less prominent people to dispute. On the contrary: the prominence itself is a reason to dispute a bit of thoughtless sexism. The honcho dudes are influential, so it’s all the more unfortunate if they’re recycling dopy sexist stereotypes.

What I said there suggests neither that Shermer “bows to popular figures in freethought movement” nor that he expects me to bow to him. What it suggests, if you’re paying attention to the words on the page, is that Shermer thinks it’s out of bounds to criticize things that “our most prominent leaders” – his words, not mine – say. My refusal to bend the knee is (surely obviously) a repudiation of the demand for deference implicit in what Shermer said. It’s not that difficult to grasp.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

And the winners are

Mar 24th, 2013 9:40 am | By

The National Secular Society had its annual awards event last night.

The National Secular Society has donated its Secularist of the Year prize fund to a global charity campaigning to ensure girls everywhere have equal access to education.

The prize fund of £7,000 was awarded to Plan UK in honour of Malala Yousafzai…

The prize was collected on Saturday at the National Secular Society’s Secularist of the Year event by Debbie Langdon-Davies, whose father John founded Plan in 1937. The prize was handed over by NSS honorary associate Michael Cashman MEP. The money will be used to support Plan’s Girls Fund which, as part of its ‘Because I am a Girl’ campaign, helps girls to claim their rights and access life-changing education.

Malala Yousafzai was nominated for Secularist of the Year by NSS supporters for campaigning for girls’ education in the face of violent and brutal Islamist opposition.

That appears to be saying they didn’t quite exactly name Malala Secularist of the Year, but did the next best thing. Maybe she didn’t want it, in which case that looks like an elegant and polite compromise.

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said: “Plan UK does fantastic work campaigning for girls’ education so we are delighted to be able to offer this award. It is also important to honour the incredibly inspiring Malala Yousafzai, who risked everything to stand up for her, and others’, right to an education. Secularism will always champion human rights above religious discrimination and oppression – which is precisely why secularism offers hope to oppressed women and minorities everywhere.”

Sing it.

A special achievement award was also presented to the Nigerian Human Rights campaigner Leo Igwe. Leo has campaigned at much risk to himself against the naming of children as “witches” and “warlocks” by manipulative and fanatical evangelical churches. Children branded in this way are often abandoned by their parents or become the subject of mistreatment or even violence.

Terry Sanderson said: “Leo Igwe is an incredibly brave and tenacious fighter for human rights in very difficult circumstances. He has been harassed and threatened by those he has opposed, and so has his family. We were very honoured to have him at this occasion and to honour him in this way. Few people deserve it more.”

An award will also be presented to Queen Mary University of London Atheism, Secularism & Humanism Society for their efforts to promote secularism on campus and in particular their defiant and robust response to attempts to close down free expression on campus.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Maryam and Nahla and Gita and Leo

Mar 24th, 2013 9:05 am | By

That has to have been a pretty amazing event in London yesterday evening – the one at which Maryam Namazie, Nahla Mamoud, Gita Sahgal, and Leo Igwe were all present!


Damn I would have liked to be there.

Were any of you there?

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Seeing Jesus everywhere

Mar 23rd, 2013 5:39 pm | By

More Jesus.

In a twirly roll.

Flower roll with peanut butter.jpg

It’s the one at ten o’clock, so it’s hard to make out.

Bird shit. You didn’t think the Ohio one was the first, did you?

A Colomba Pasquale. How appropriate!

Raisin bread.

The one on the left. Jesus of the sad face.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

A missionary

Mar 23rd, 2013 12:29 pm | By

The new Free Inquiry appeared a few days ago, but it’s not online yet, and I haven’t received a copy yet. Other people have though, and one tweeter reached out to me as a result.


TheAtheistMissionary @AtheistMission

Just read @OpheliaBenson’s lame response to @michaelshermer in Free Inquiry. Ophelia, don’t “bend a knee” – tell someone who cares.

Tell someone who cares? That’s a dumb fuck thing to say. Somebody does care, or I wouldn’t have been invited to write it, would I. Also I know a few people who care. “Tell someone who cares” is just a stupid retort to a published article. I didn’t tell “The Atheist Missionary” personally, I simply wrote a response to something that was written at and about me. If “The Atheist Missionary” doesn’t care then he (it is a he) doesn’t have to read it. I didn’t “tell” him anything.

And as for lame response – it isn’t, actually. In a way I have Shermer to thank for that – he made it incredibly easy for me. But at any rate it isn’t lame.

I’m not sure I should post the whole thing here before the issue is online, but I’ll post the last few paragraphs (it’s only 922 words, much shorter than Shermer’s piece) so that you can see what “bend the knee” refers to.

So why is Shermer so angry? He did after all say what I quoted him saying. (He twice says I “redacted” it but that’s offensively incorrect – I did no such thing.)

He seems to be furious simply because some underling had the gall to criticize him – as if he were beyond or above criticism. Well why would that be? A cat can look at a king, after all. Shermer seems to see it as some sort of lèse majesté, as if we were in Thailand, where it’s an actual crime to criticize the royal family. But Shermer’s elevated status is – ironically – as a prominent skeptic. A skeptic. If there’s anything skeptics don’t subscribe to, it’s the idea of infallibility.

Shermer however genuinely does seem to think that “prominence” should confer immunity to challenge. After he mentions the putative purge of “such prominent advocates as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris” he says that “I have stayed out of this witch hunt against our most prominent leaders.” Our what? Whose “leaders”? I don’t recall joining any army, or even a party. I don’t consider Dawkins and Harris my “leaders”; I don’t consider anyone that.

No, I’m sorry, that won’t do. I’m not going to bend the knee to “our most prominent leaders” and I’m not going to refrain from criticizing them and go looking for less prominent people to dispute. On the contrary: the prominence itself is a reason to dispute a bit of thoughtless sexism. The honcho dudes are influential, so it’s all the more unfortunate if they’re recycling dopy sexist stereotypes.

As a lot of people have pointed out, Shermer could have just said he misspoke, as happens in live conversations, and moved on. Instead he chose an explosion of outraged vanity. So much for skepticism.

That’s what it refers to.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Who is more mainstream?

Mar 23rd, 2013 11:24 am | By

See update at end.

So all the irritated or difficult or especial feminist types think all of atheism is sexist to the core and hostile to all but the most compliant and Hot women, right?

No. Not at all.

Adam Lee has a post on the subject.

He starts with a post by Melissa McEwan that lists a string of rules (in the form of tweets). I’m not all that fond of strings of rules. I think that’s for the same sort of reason I’m not fond of attempts (let alone demands) to discuss complicated philosophical issues on Twitter. I’ve been finding it pretty funny lately to see Richard Dawkins doing exactly that, repeatedly – discuss abortion on Twitter, discuss eugenics on Twitter. If there’s any medium under the sun that’s not ideal for discussing complicated philosophical issues, it’s Twitter! There’s a reason John Rawls and Derek Parfitt and Ronald Dworkin put their thoughts into books as opposed to telegrams.

So I’m not really crazy about McEwan’s string of rules. I can think of exceptions, and complications, and questions…It’s just not really a very rule-ish subject. It’s bigger than that. Yes observance of some minimal rules would help, to be sure…but that’s so very minimal that it’s really not very interesting. Yes ok no name-calling, no photoshops; can we move on now? To something a little more complicated and interesting?

But anyway. Adam balked at McEwan’s implication that sexism (or worse) is mainstream atheism and vice versa.

McEwan posted this:

I started out writing about why I didn’t want to have anything to do with mainstream movement atheism, but, in the end, this entire endeavor has revealed that whether I want anything to do with mainstream movement atheism is irrelevant, because mainstream movement atheism doesn’t want to have anything to do with me.

Although I agreed with just about everything else McEwan was saying, I thought this was unfair. Certainly, I’m not denying that sexism exists. I’ve seen the abuse hurled at some of my female friends, and I’d never tell any woman that they have an obligation to put up with it. I believe it benefits both atheists and feminists for us to have a closer alliance, but if any feminist doesn’t feel safe or comfortable in the atheist community, then that’s entirely her decision to make.

But I think McEwan went farther than that, by saying “mainstream movement atheism doesn’t want to have anything to do with me”. To me, this sounds as if she’s saying that atheism has only one voice, and it’s the voice of the sexists. I just don’t think this is accurate.

I don’t either. I said that there.

No, I don’t either. Definitely not. Which is ironic, because I’m one of the Top Demons of the sexist faction, and one of the most-cited reasons (that I see) for my enviable status is that I’m always saying things like “all atheist men are sexist” or “all of mainstream movement atheism is hostile to women.”

But I don’t think that at all and I’ve never said it. I think mostly the sexist faction is pretty marginal.

I think sexism is somewhat less marginal (and thus more mainstream) in organized movement skepticism, but that’s a different thing, and anyway only somewhat.

Mind you…there is a lot of sexism in “mainstream movement atheism.” There are a lot of sexist guys there, churning out a lot of sexism. But that still doesn’t make the sexism mainstream, because there are a lot of the opposite, too. I have no idea what the actual percentages are, but I see no reason to think the sexism is dominant or the majority.


Update March 26

It turns out I was too hasty with this one, and mischaracterized what McEwan said. Here’s what she said -

I started out writing about why I didn’t want to have anything to do with mainstream movement atheism, but, in the end, this entire endeavor has revealed that whether I want anything to do with mainstream movement atheism is irrelevant, because mainstream movement atheism doesn’t want to have anything to do with me.

Message received.  I’ll show myself out, etc.

Of course I don’t actually mean me, per se.  What I mean is people from various marginalized populations, who challenge the kyriarchal structures at work in mainstream movement atheism, despite its claims to aspire to better.

What I mean is that people are watching how this played out, and people watch how every iteration of attempting to have a serious conversation about inclusion plays out, and every time this happens, it’s not just about shouting down one critic, but conveying to everyone following the totally predictable pattern that they still are not welcome, that they still are not safe.

Well, yes, I don’t disagree with that.

My bad.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

More things that look like Jesus

Mar 23rd, 2013 9:49 am | By

One miracle after another.

Apple pie and custard.

Image Ref: 09-23-4 - Apple Pie and Custard, Viewed 26108 times

A stone wall.

Image Ref: 9908-11-6747 - Stone wall with evening sunlight, Viewed 5040 times

This one daffodil that looks taller than the others because of the angle.

Image Ref: 9909-03-832 - Daffodil, Viewed 3969 times

This other dog too.

Image Ref: 01-07-71 - Dog, Viewed 54801 times

A pineapple. (Yes, I went there.)

Fruit - Pineapple has been viewed 480033 times

Beans on toast.

Image Ref: 09-37-4 - Baked Beans on toast, Viewed 87548 times

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

It’s uncanny!

Mar 23rd, 2013 9:32 am | By

Ah no I can’t resist. Resistance is too much to ask.

A guy in Ohio found some bird shit on his windshield, and at first he thought it was just some bird shit, as one does, you know, but then he took a closer look and guess what?! It turned out to be a picture (delicately drawn in bird shit) of a piece of toast with a picture of Jesus on it!

No, wait, that’s not right. It was the lid of a jar of Marmite with a picture of Jesus in it.

No. It was a tortilla with a picture of Jesus on it.

No. It was a 14th century painting of Jesus that looked uncannily like Jesus.

No, it was a 12th century painting of The Virgin Mary that looked uncannily like Jesus.

No, seriously. He took a closer look and the bird shit turned out to be a picture of Jesus.

He says. But look at it. That’s Jesus? Is he kidding? It’s a dog! A dog that is for some reason wearing a wig. But anyway it’s a dog.

Via Ed.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Detailed sexual commentary was part of the “feedback”

Mar 22nd, 2013 4:25 pm | By

Soraya Chemaly explains, again, that internet harassment and threatening are not trivial or no biggy or “harmless expressions of free speech.”

Often, these incidents come down to a group of men targeting a woman because they perceive a potential threat to men’s “free speech” and that this threat trumps a woman’s rights — to free speech and to actual, physical safety.

Take Rebecca Meredith. Two weeks ago, as she wrote about in an article in the Mail Online, she participated in a formal university debate. Some students, most, if not all, of whom happened to be men, heckled her.  Fine, everyone gets heckled.  But then, when she and her female debating partner confronted the hecklers for the sexist tone of their “critiques,” the responses included, “Get that woman out of my union,” “What does a woman know anyway,” and “Frigid bitch.” Whatever. The educated, elite young men, their academic peers, went on to make crass comments regarding their breasts and other aspects of their physical appearances. Detailed sexual commentary was part of the “feedback” they received.  They, like Richards, felt “uncomfortable” with the tone and content, especially in a professional context. “Naturally,” as this event migrated online, some other men publicly decided to parse Meredith’s “rape potential,” while others piled on to describe their “rape-her” preferences.

That’s unpleasant at best and intimidating at worst. That’s not “free speech” – it actively discourages free speech.

The massive amount of social sanction and support provided online for violent, ugly, trolling mobs making physical threats like these about women they don’t even know isn’t outside of mainstream culture.

But it should be. We’re trying to make that the case. No prospect of success so far though.

Sexist commentary — the jokes, the asides, the slights, the tweets — is hostile, but it’s just the very surface of what we’re dealing with. This isn’t about being “offended,” it’s about feeling marginalized as a result of hate and disdain.   Women like Richards and so many others reach a saturation point where staying quiet about it is no longer possible.

What online thugs and their defenders are actually saying is, “How dare you mess with my privileges? Stop challenging norms that I benefit from or invading public spaces where I’ve historically dominated without this kind of restraint.”  What elite has ever given up its privileges willingly and without a fight? It’s such an inconvenience.

If “we” want women to “lighten up,” or we want stop telling women to be afraid, then “we” have to stop threatening them with rape and raping them.

I would like it if we could do that.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Is that an air freshener or are you just watching women pee?

Mar 22nd, 2013 3:19 pm | By

Ah the old put a hidden camera in the room where women use the toilets trick.

A Tippecanoe County pastor who was arrested last year under suspicions that he had planted cameras in his church’s ladies’ room has been charged going on 1 year later with child exploitation and voyeurism.

Fifty-six-year-old Robert A. Lyzenga, a former pastor at Sunrise Christian Reformed Church in Lafayette, was charged Thursday with five counts of child exploitation and five counts of voyeurism. That’s 10 felony charges.

According to court documents, on April 22, 2012, a Tippecanoe County Sheriff’s Office deputy was dispatched to the church (located on County Road 500 South) on a complaint of a camera being found in a women’s bathroom.

So what is that? Combining glimpses of the Forbidden Parts with dirties? Peepee, poopoo, tinkles, smells? Arousal and degradation and contempt all at once?

And doing it all for god, or protected by god, or with god’s forgiveness, or some damn thing.

Via Ed.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

She should have just had a dialogue with them

Mar 22nd, 2013 11:35 am | By

Well, the Adria Richards blowup sounds very familiar.

Lindy West at Jezebel comments.

Now. A few things. Yes, in the grand scheme of the entire earth, a few offhand jokes about “big dongles” are almost completely innocuous. In fact, I made pretty much exactly the same joke one million times, whenever my nerdy former roommate said he was looking for his “dongle” or he needed to go “dongle shopping.” However, CONTEXT MATTERS. And the issue that a lot of (white) men seem to have trouble grasping is that not everyone gets to move through the world wrapped in the comfy presumption that every space is their space. Many people almost never get to feel like that, outside of their own homes, because most spaces aren’t inclusive of all groups.

And sometimes because a few people go to great lengths, all the time all day every day, to make certain spaces feel the very opposite of their space – to make them feel like tanks of sharks armed with whirling razor blades.

I can only speculate, but based on my experiences in male-dominated fields (film criticism, comedy), I imagine that the relatively small number of women working in tech are on high alert all the time. I imagine that constant dick jokes, with their tacit imagery of a woman’s body on the receiving end of said dick, might start to wear on a woman who already feels subtly unwelcome in a male-dominated space. I imagine that that wearying onslaught might be particularly frustrating when the woman is simply trying to do her job without being reminded, by the hundreds of strange men surrounding her, of her utility as a sexual object. I imagine that attempting to speak quietly with each individual man and instruct them in the particulars of rape culture and the subtle hostilities of gendered interaction might eventually begin to seem like a lost cause (and also, potentially, frightening).

Or worse. Worse is what happened to Adria Richards next, and that kind of thing makes all but the most compliant women feel at the mercy of raging shouting screaming mocking jeering threatening enemies.

Regardless of what you think of the joke itself, it is sexist to contribute (willfully or cluelessly! Ignorance is not an excuse!) to a hostile work environment for women. Full stop. If you didn’t realize you were doing it, that means you haven’t bothered to think critically about women’s comfort and needs. It’s fucking 2013. It is not women’s responsibility alone to correct gender imbalances. We need men to help. Richards shouldn’t have had to reach out to PyCon administrators to get the disruption sorted out—men should learn to police their own goddamn behavior and the behavior of their neighbors. It’s not enough to be neutral. It’s not enough to be nice. Forward-thinking men who work in fields traditionally hostile to women have a responsibility to be actively pro-woman in those spaces.

Protip: that doesn’t include things like trying to force them to engage in a “dialogue” with the very people who have been raging shouting screaming mocking jeering threatening and insulting them.

PZ also has a post on the subject.

I wonder how many women will now think twice before complaining about asshole behavior at their job or at a meeting? If they’re inhibited, congratulations, scumbags: you got what you wanted. On the other hand, maybe we’ll finally reach a critical mass of outrage, and the next time some dudebro starts with the sexist shit at a conference, a dozen people, men and women alike, will rise up and tell him to grow up or get out.

I know I’m even less inclined to let casual smears slide now. I hope you feel the same way.

I do, as a matter of fact. I’m not optimistic that it’s going to get me anywhere, but I do.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

250,000 children were removed

Mar 22nd, 2013 10:10 am | By

Julia Gillard has apologized for Australia’s policy in the 1950s 60s and 70s of forcing unmarried mothers to give up their infants for adoption.

A senate inquiry found that about 250,000 children were removed from unmarried mothers in Australian hospitals shortly after their births in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and given to childless married couples.

Many women said they were coerced into signing away their children.

That doesn’t sound like a very humane policy.

Ms Gillard made the apology at Parliament House in Canberra in the presence of more than 800 people affected by the policy.

They cried and cheered as they listened to Ms Gillard and responded with a standing ovation when it was finished.

The prime minister told the audience that the policies had “created a lifelong legacy of pain and suffering”.

“We acknowledge the profound effects of these policies and practices on fathers and we recognise the hurt these actions caused to brothers and sisters, grandparents, partners and extended family members,” she said.

“We deplore the shameful practices that denied you, the mothers, your fundamental rights and responsibilities to love and care for your children,” she added.

This report is from RTE. Ireland has reasons to pay attention, as it goes on to say.

Meanwhile, Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte has told the Dáil that there is no legislation planned for a State inquiry into illegal adoptions in Ireland.

The matter was raised during the Order of Business by Sinn Féin’s Aengus Ó Snodaigh, who claimed that it was an emerging issue as a result of reports into Magdalene Laundries.

Noting today’s apology in Australia to those affected by illegal adoptions there, Mr Ó Snodaigh asked if there were any plans to hold a similar inquiry in Ireland, which would look at the falsification of adoption records.

Mothers who lose their children, children who lose their mothers, siblings who lose each other…It’s a heartbreaking legacy.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

A press release from American Atheists

Mar 22nd, 2013 8:54 am | By

Atheist Convention to Feature “Dinner With The Stars,” Live Auction


Cranford, NJ—American Atheists will host some of the leading national and international atheists at a fundraiser dinner and auction on the eve of its 50th Anniversary Celebration and National Convention in Austin, Texas next week.

The event is scheduled for 7:00 PM on Thursday, March 28, the night before the convention weekend begins.

Attendees will be able to dine with many star speakers including former California Congressman Pete Stark, Twisted Sister lead guitarist Jay Jay French, British philosopher and author A.C. Grayling, blogger and activist Greta Christina, author Katherine Stewart, Biblical scholar Dr. Hector Avalos, President of the Atheist Community of Austin Matt Dillahunty, former preacher Teresa MacBain, international video blogger Cristina Rad, and American Atheists President Dave Silverman.

Among the items up for auction are a rare first-edition work by the 19th-century American orator and statesman, “The Great Agnostic” Robert Ingersoll; an illustrated copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy signed by its author, the late Douglas Adams; and a copy of the late Christopher Hitchens’ final work, Mortality, with the author’s original signature on a card.

Also for auction is a weeklong stay at the vacation villa Paradise Costa Rica for up to six guests. Information about the villa is available at A noteworthy past guest was atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett, who recently finished a manuscript there.

American Atheists’ 50th Anniversary Celebration and National Convention will feature such speakers such as former Congressman Pete Stark, Twisted Sister lead guitarist Jay Jay French, authors A.C. Grayling and Katherine Stewart, popular debater Matt Dillahunty, former pastors-turned-atheists Teresa MacBain and Jerry DeWitt, and American Atheists President David Silverman. The convention will also feature a costume dinner, free concerts, a comedy show, an art show and silent auction, more than 25 national and local exhibitors, and childcare options for attending families. The convention takes place the weekend of March 29.


AMERICAN ATHEISTS is a national 501(c)(3) organization that defends civil rights for atheists, freethinkers, and other nonbelievers; works for the total separation of religion and government; and addresses issues of First Amendment public policy.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)