Notes and Comment Blog

We don’t have to go looking

Sep 20th, 2014 12:51 pm | By

Amanda Marcotte is amusing about Sam Harris and his tantrum about horrid people saying he said something sexist and wrong and silly.

Nah, he can’t be wrong. He’s Sam Harris! And so he’s going to drown us in words to show how mean we are to criticize him about his suggestion that being female makes us less critical and ugh, getting a headache now. Let’s just get into it. His response is titled, “I’m Not the Sexist Pig You’re Looking For“. Indeed, as his comments showed, we don’t have to go looking for sexist pigs, as they happen to fall right in our laps. I would like, in fact, for sexist pigs to quit falling in my lap, honestly.

Exactly. He accused me of going looking for it, but not at all – I happened to see it (on Facebook, because someone posted the link – that’s a thing that can happen), and when I saw it, I saw that it was bad, and I responded to it. That’s all. No need to go sniffing for truffles.

He starts with saying the “estrogen vibe” thing was a joke. Okay, but that doesn’t change the fact that he suggested being good at the “critical posture” is inherently male, something you’d think that he would have learned is completely false in the days after this quote. Then this:

And when I shifted to speaking about atheists as a group, I was referring to active atheists—that is, the sort of people who go to atheist conferences, read atheist books, watch atheists debate pastors on YouTube, or otherwise rally around atheism as a political identity. I was not talking about everyone on Earth who doesn’t believe in God.

Yep, a lot more male than female atheists are active about it. This should be considered evidence not that women are less critical—they are just as likely to come to the conclusion that there is no god as men—but that there’s….something….unappealing about organized atheism. Perhaps the swiftness [with] which women are treated like biologically inferior helpmeets might have something to do with it?

Or even a lot to do with it? I know I’m feeling very wary of organized atheism and organized atheists right now.

…the acerbic tone that offends him so greatly that he goes into italics-bonanza mode should suggest perhaps that he is not as masculine and tough and women are not as soft and receding as he thinks. On average, even. Also, the reason a lot of women hated Hitchens is Hitchens thought we were inferior by dint of biology. I find that offensive whether you say it gently or say it acerbically. It’s the content, not the tone. Or, as the calm, rational manly man Harris would write, it’s the content, not the tone.

Or sometimes it’s both.

I gotta go. The manly atheists have worn me out today.

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

Justice and mercy in Iran

Sep 20th, 2014 11:49 am | By

Let’s take a moment to be grateful for something. I’ll choose not being a blogger in Iran. I’m so glad I’m not a blogger in Iran. One guy who is a blogger in Iran has been sentenced to death for insulting the prophet. You’d think somebody who has been dead for 1400 years could put up with being insulted – I mean who gets upset if someone insults Alfred the Great or Boethius or Eirik the Red? But Iran is different that way.

According to an ‘informed source’,speaking to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, Soheil Arabi, 30, had kept eight Facebook pages under different names and admitted to posting material insulting to the Prophet on these pages.

Mr Arabi, who was arrested along with his wife in November last year by agents from the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), is said to have written the “material without thinking and in poor psychological condition”.

Branch 75 of Tehran’s Criminal Court, under Judge Khorasani, found Mr Arabi guilty of insulting the Prophet, or “sabb al-nabi”, on 30 August.

Maybe the NFL should try that. Maybe it should try to make it a crime to insult a dead football coach.

But no – even the NFL wouldn’t think that would fly.

Article 262 of the Islamic Penal Code states insulting the Prophet carries a punishment of death, however, article 264 of the Penal Code says if a suspect claims to have said the insulting words in anger, in quoting someone, or by mistake, his death sentence will be converted to 74 lashes.

The anonymous source claims: “Unfortunately, despite this Article and the explanations provided, the judges issued the death sentence.

“They didn’t even take any notice of Soheil’s statements in court in which he repeated several times that he wrote the posts under poor [psychological] conditions, and that he is remorseful.”

A mere 74 lashes – for “insulting” a guy who’s been dead for centuries. Justice itself.

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

Guest post: A Statistical Analysis of a Sexual Assault Case

Sep 20th, 2014 10:47 am | By

Guest post by J H Hornbeck
(part 1: statistics for the people, and of the people)

I just can’t seem to escape sexual assault. For the last six months I’ve analyzed the Stollznow/Radford case, and more recently finished an examination of Carol Tavris’ talk at TAM2014, so that topic has never wandered far from my mind. I’ve bounced my thoughts off other people, sometimes finding support, other times running into confusion or rejection. It’s the latter case that most fascinates me, so I hope you don’t mind if I write my way through the confusion.

The most persistent objection I’ve received goes something like this: I cannot take population statistics and apply them to a specific person. That’s overgeneralizing, and I cannot possibly get to a firm conclusion by doing it.

It makes sense on some level. Human beings are wildly different and can be extremely unpredictable because of that. The field of psychology is scattered with the remains of attempts to bring order to the chaos. However, I’ve had to struggle greatly to reach even that poor level of intellectual empathy, as the argument runs contrary to our every moment of existence. This may be a classic example of talking to fish about water; our unrelenting leaps from the population to the individual seem rare and strange when consciously considered, because they almost never are conscious.

Don’t believe me? Here’s a familiar example.

P1. That object looks like a chair.

P2. Based on prior experience, objects that look like chairs can support my weight.

C1. Therefore, that object can support my weight.

Yep, the Problem of Induction is a classic example of applying the general to the specific. I may have sat on hundreds of chairs in my lifetime, without incident, but that does not prove the next chair I sit on will remain firm. I can even point to instances where a chair did collapse… and yet, if there’s any hesitation when I sit down, it’s because I’m worried about things stuck to the seat. The worry of the chair collapsing never enters my mind.

Once you’ve had the water pointed out to you, it appears everywhere. Indeed, you cannot do any action without jumping from population to specific.

P1. A brick could spontaneously fly at my head.

P2. Based on prior experience, no brick has ever spontaneously flown at my head.

C1. Therefore, no brick will spontaneously fly at my head.

P1. I’m typing symbols on a page.

P2. Based on prior experience, other people have been able to decode those symbols.

C1. Therefore, other people will decode those symbols.

P1. I want to raise my arm.

P2. Based on prior experience, triggering a specific set of nerve impulses will raise my arm.

C1. Therefore, I trigger those nerve impulses.

“Action” includes the acts of science, too.

P1. I take a measurement with a specific device and a specific calibration.

P2. Based on prior experience, measurements with that device and calibration were reliable.

C1. Therefore, this measurement will be reliable.

Philosophers may view the Problem of Induction as an infinitely-wide canyon, but it’s a millimetre crack in our day-to-day lives. Not all instances are legitimate, though. Here’s a subtle failure.

P1. This vaccine contains mercury.

P2. Based on prior experience, mercury is a toxic substance with strong neurological effects.

C1. Therefore, this vaccine is a toxic substance with strong neurological effects.

Sure, your past experience may have included horror stories of what happens after chronic exposure to high levels of mercury… but unbeknownst to you, it also included chronic exposure to very low levels of mercury compounds, of varying toxicity, which had no effect on you or anyone else. There’s a stealth premise here: the dose makes the poison. It’s not hard to come up with similarly flawed examples that are more subtle (“Therefore, I will not die today”) and less (“Therefore, all black people are dangerous thugs”).

Hmm, maybe this type of argument is unsound when applied to people? Let’s see:

P1. This is a living person.

P2. Based on prior experience, living persons have beating hearts.

C1. Therefore, this living person has a beating heart.

Was that a bit cheap? I’ll try again:

P1. This is a person living in Canada.

P2. Based on prior experience, people living in Canada speak English.

C1. Therefore, this person will speak English.

Now I’m skating onto thin ice. According to StatCan, only 85% of Canadians can speak English, so this is only correct most of the time. Let’s revise it a bit:

P1. This is a person living in Canada.

P2. Based on prior experience, about 85% of people living in Canada speak English.

C1. Therefore, there’s an 85% chance this person will speak English.


Much better. In fact, it’s much better than anything I’ve presented so far, as it quantifies and puts solid error bars around what it is arguing. The quantity was gathered by professionals in controlled conditions, an immense improvement over my ad-hoc, poorly-recorded personal experience.

Mind you, it wouldn’t take much effort to track down a remote village in Quebec where few people could talk to me, and the places where I hang out are well above 85% English-speaking. But notice that both are a sub-population of Canada, while the above talks only of Canada as a whole. It’s a solid argument over the domain it covers, but adding more details can change that.

Ready for the next step? It’s a bit scary.

P1. This is a man.

P2. Based on prior experience, between 6 and 62% of men have raped or attempted it.

C1. Therefore, the chance of that man having raped or attempted rape is between 6 and 62%.

Hopefully you can see this is nothing but probability theory at work. The error bars are pretty huge there, but as with the language stat we can add more details.

P1. This is a male student at a mid-sized, urban commuter university in the United States with a diverse student body.

P2. Based on prior experience, about 6% of such students have raped or attempted it.

C1. Therefore, the odds of that male student having raped or attempted rape is about 6%.


We can do much better, though, by continuing to pile on the evidence we have and watching how the probabilities shift around. Interestingly, we don’t even need to be that precise with our numbers; if there’s sufficient evidence, they’ll converge on some sort of answer. One flip of a coin tells you almost nothing about how fair the process is; a thousand flips taken together tells you quite a lot, and it isn’t pretty. Even if the numbers don’t come to a solid conclusion, that might still be OK; you wouldn’t do much if there was a 30% chance your ice cream cone started melting before you could lick it, but you would take immediate action if there was a 30% chance of a meteor hitting your house. Fuzzy answers can still justify action, if the consequences are harsh enough and outweigh the cost of getting it wrong.

So why not see what answers we can draw from a sexual assault case? One problem: discussing sexual assault is a great way to get sued, especially when the accused in question is rumoured to be unusually litigious.

So instead, let’s discuss birds

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

Often, a member making an accusation faces reprisal

Sep 19th, 2014 5:43 pm | By

Via Jen Phillips: University of Oregon researchers urge psychologists to see institutional betrayal.

Oh yes? [ears go up like a dog's] I’m very interested in that right now.

In their paper, UO doctoral student Carly P. Smith and psychology professor Jennifer J. Freyd draw from their own studies and diverse writings and research to provide a framework to help recognize patterns of institutional betrayal. The term, the authors wrote, aims to capture “the individual experiences of violations of trust and dependency perpetrated against any member of an institution in a way that does not necessarily arise from an individual’s less-privileged identity.”

An institution…like…a church? A university? The military? The NFL? Corporations, government, non-profits, political movements?

Sound familiar? Yeah.

While their paper focuses on sexual assaults on college campuses, in the military and in religious institutions, the authors say that such betrayal is a wide-ranging phenomenon. Throughout the paper, they discuss the case of a college freshman in the Midwest whose questionably handled allegations against a major university’s football player eventually contributed to her suicide.

“I think what struck me most in our examination of the literature was that people are starting to turn over this idea in their minds in all these different fields,” Smith said. “They are starting to notice that when we see abuse or other trauma occurring, it might behoove us to broaden our focus beyond the individual level.”

Yup. Yup yup yup.

They note that institutional betrayal is a dimensional phenomenon, with acts of omission and commission as well as instances of betrayal that may vary on how clearly systemic they are at the outset. Institutional characteristics that the authors say often precede such betrayal include:

• Membership qualifications with inflexible requirements where “conformity is valued and deviance quickly corrected as a means of self-policing among members.” Often, a member making an accusation faces reprisal because of the institutional value placed on membership.

• Prestige given to top leaders results in a power differential. In this case, allegations that are made by a member against a leader often are met by gatekeepers whose roles are designed to protect top-level authority.

• Priorities that result in “damage control” efforts designed to protect the overall reputation of the institution. Examples include the abuse scandal at Pennsylvania State University, the movement of clergy to other locations in the face of allegations and hiding incidents of incest within family units.  More recently, Freyd and Smith noted, the NFL demonstrated this quality by denying it had seen video footage of one of its players battering his fiancee and its previously long record of minor penalties for such interpersonal abuse.

• Institutional denial in which members who allege abuse are marginalized by the institution as being bad apples whose personal behaviors should be the issue.

Check, check, check, and check. We’re seeing that all the time, these days. Hour by hour, we’re seeing it. Bridges go up in flames as we see it.

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

What does “explicitly stated” mean?

Sep 19th, 2014 10:51 am | By

Today Dawkins is angry about an article in the New Statesman titled I was raped when I was drunk. I was 14. Do you believe me, Richard Dawkins?

He’s angry that the New Statesman didn’t call him. But after all, he did tweet last week, hours after Mark Oppenheimer’s article appeared,

“Officer, it’s not my fault I was drunk driving. You see, somebody got me drunk.”

And a later one:

Raping a drunk woman is appalling. So is jailing a man when the sole prosecution evidence is “I was too drunk to remember what happened.”

But as I pointed out, jailing wasn’t the issue.

But the odd thing here is that in his tweets about the New Statesman article he’s claiming that his tweets about rape were explicitly hypothetical.

In my tweets I explicitly stated that I was considering the hypothetical case of a woman who testified that she COULDN’T REMEMBER.

Do those two that I just quoted explicitly state that they are hypothetical? No they do not.

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


Sep 19th, 2014 9:54 am | By

Scotland voted No on independence.

The prime minister wants to move fast to show that the three main UK party leaders will live up to their commitments made during the referendum campaign to deliver what the former prime minister Gordon Brown called home rule within the UK.

Ministers believe it is important to move quickly to avoid a repeat of the 1980 referendum in Québec. The triumphalist behaviour of Ontario fuelled the separatist cause that nearly succeeded in a second referendum in 1995.

So don’t rub it in their noses. Lots of affectionate hugs, no faces rubbed in the No vote. And no mean photoshops!

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

Guest post: Quite a backlash

Sep 18th, 2014 5:35 pm | By

Guest post by Mary Ellen Foley. 

A threat to bomb the Game Developers’ Conference if Anita Sarkeesian gets an award there…threats to murder her and make it look like suicide because she’s a worse threat than terrorists to the country…and for what? For pointing out that it’s not good that video games exploit images of women’s bodies and of violence against women as scene dressing in the backgrounds of games? Really? A veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq says she’s worse than terrorists because she suggests that it might not be a good idea for game developers to show an animation of a man slitting the throat of an anonymous woman just to get the pulses of game players racing?

I tried to watch one of Sarkeesian’s pieces about the use of images of women in games, and I had to stop pretty quickly — I don’t have a strong enough stomach — though I must point out, not least because my husband makes a living in the video game industry, that not all games are violent and not all games are misogynistic — but of course Sarkeesian doesn’t say they are.

There’s been quite a backlash from misogynist video-game fans over suggestions as mild as that the industry should, in addition to the violent misogynist games the fanboys love, make games that women like to play, too, or more games that maybe offer the possibility of playing as a female character — not that you have to play as a female character, but that other people can if they want to. They so want the Girls Keep Out on the clubhouse door that they can’t imagine life in which women play games, too; they threaten to punish the industry by not buying games at all if the developers go wild and make some more games in which players can, if they want, interact with the virtual baddies as female characters. Women, it seems, just shouldn’t play games, and female characters should be abused, killed, or rescued but certainly ought not to be heroes. Fortunately, as statistics and estimates my husband has pulled together show, the guys who think the world of video games revolves around them are wrong; the money they spend on games makes up a surprisingly small proportion of the funds that keep the industry rolling—hard to believe, but that’s because the violent action games get the press.

And they should at times get the press, and Anita Sarkeesian is part of that press, but she’s getting death threats serious enough to bring out the police and the bomb-sniffing dogs, and the FBI is now looking into who’s threatening her. I wish it were unbelievable…

Mary Ellen Foley blogs at M E Foley’s Anglo-American Experience Blog.

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

Guest post: Everybody Is. Even You, Sam Harris

Sep 18th, 2014 5:15 pm | By

Guest post by Lady Mondegreen (aka Stacy).

It’s happened again. Feminists of the atheoskeptisphere have pointed out that one of our Famous Men said something sexist; the assertion has been met with intense defensiveness and downright rage. The defensiveness is understandable, but the rage baffled me until I realized that it comes, at least in part, from a profound misconception about what sexism is and how it works.

To start with, here’s a statement from a comment by Folie Deuce, on Ophelia’s post #EstrogenVibe

If everyone is sexist than nobody is sexist.

No. Category error.

The wrongness there can be understood by substituting a few other words for the word “sexism”:

If everyone is affected by cognitive biases, then nobody is affected by cognitive biases.

See the problem? Everybody IS affected by cognitive biases. They’re implicit. Same with sexist biases, and racist biases, and other out-group biases. We all share them, to varying degrees–even those of us who belong to the groups in question. We’ve internalized them. If you react with outrage when you or one of your heroes is criticized for a cognitive bias lurking behind your/their thinking on a subject, you’re being defensive, not skeptical. Since none of us is ammune to implicit bias, you should at least consider the possibility that the critic is right. Most skeptics familiar with critical thinking (or its language, at least,) will grant that in the abstract, but many can’t acknowledge it when the subject is sexism.

They should.

Like cognitive biases, sexist and other out-group biases are implicit. Their content is dependent on culture and varies to some degree from place to place (I’ve read–I can’t vouch for the truth of this–that in Japan, the notion that women are less intelligent than men isn’t common. There are other stereotypes about women to be found there, but not that particular one,) but if you’ve grown up in a culture steeped in stereotypes and biases against Group X, you’ve internalized those stereotypes and biases. Yes, even you, Mr. Big Stuff. You’re not a brain in a vat. You grew up with the same implicit assumptions as everyone else in your society.

When Sam Harris insists “I’m not the sexist pig you’re looking for,” he’s assuming that “you said something sexist,” translates into/as “you think that men are better than women,” or even “you are a male supremacist.” But that’s not what “you said something sexist” means. That’s not what it means at all.

Does this seem obvious to you, reader? If you’re a regular reader of this blog, it probably does. But there are lots of people, some very smart ones among them, who haven’t thought this through.

Ian Cromwell, aka The Crommunist, has argued against using the word “racist” as a noun. We shouldn’t characterize anyone as “a racist,” he thinks, in part because of confusions like the one I’m discussing here. I wouldn’t go quite that far–I think it’s fair and useful to call a person who holds explicit white supremacist views a racist, and a person who thinks it a shame women ever won the right to vote, a sexist. Sam Harris, on the other hand, is correct that he’s not a “sexist pig.” He is, however, sexist–along with me, and you, and everyone else. How nice if he could acknowledge that fact, and turn his attention from defending himself to examining the content of actual claims made by and about women, even–dare we hope–the implicit ones.

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

All those links

Sep 18th, 2014 4:52 pm | By

In another turn of the screw, Dawkins called Adam Lee a liar. So now I have to read Adam’s piece again to see if I can find anything that can possibly justify that announcement.

The atheist movement – a loosely-knit community of conference-goers, advocacy organizations, writers and activists – has been wracked by infighting the last few years over its persistent gender imbalance and the causes of it. Many female atheists have explained that they don’t get more involved because of the casual sexism endemic to the movement: parts of it see nothing problematic about hosting conferences with all-male speakers or having all-male leadership – and that’s before you get to the vitriolic and dangerous sexual harassment, online and off, that’s designed to intimidate women into silence.

Is that it? That’s not a lie. There are people who think that, and say so – and there certainly is vitriolic and dangerous sexual harassment, online and off. It is designed to intimidate women into silence – many of the people who engage in it say so, regularly.

Richard Dawkins has involved himself in some of these controversies, and rarely for the better – as with his infamous “Dear Muslima” letter in 2011, in which he essentially argued that, because women in Muslim countries suffer more from sexist mistreatment, women in the west shouldn’t speak up about sexual harassment or physical intimidation. There was also his sneer at women who advocate anti-sexual harassment policies.

That? I followed the links, and it looks like a fair cop to me.

On Twitter these last few days, Dawkins has reverted to his old, sexist ways and then some. He’s been very busy snarling about how feminists are shrill harridans who just want an excuse to take offense, and how Harris’s critics (and his own) are not unlike thought police witch-hunter lynch mobs. Dawkins claimed that his critics are engaged in “clickbait for profit”, that they “fake outrage”, and that he wished there were some way to penalize them.

Ah maybe that’s it – the shrill harridans bit. I did notice that the first time through. I haven’t seen Dawkins say that…I’ve only seen him imply it.

Or maybe it’s this passage?

What’s so frustrating, from the standpoint of the large and growing non-religious demographic, is that Dawkins is failing badly to live up to his own standards. As both an atheist and a scientist, he should be the first to defend the principle that no one is above criticism, and that any idea can be challenged, especially an idea in accord with popular prejudices. Instead, with no discernible sense of irony, Dawkins is publicly recycling the bad arguments so often used against him as an atheist: accusing his critics of being “outrage junkies” who are only picking fights for the sake of notoriety; roaring about “thought police” as though it were a bad thing to argue that someone is mistaken and attempt to change their mind; scoffing that they’re “looking for excuses to be angry” as though the tone of the argument, rather than its factual merits, were the most important thing; encouraging those who are targets of criticism to ignore it rather than respond.

There are certainly no lies there. I could find chapter and verse for each one.

Adam has requested elucidation; it will be interesting to see if any is forthcoming.

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

The approach taken

Sep 18th, 2014 12:32 pm | By

Michael wants me to respond to his post without the sarcastic paraphrasing. Fair enough. I can at least try, although it’s a very long and winding post, which does make it difficult. This won’t be complete, therefore, but it will be something.


I believe that the approach taken by PZ Myers, and by some other people on (for shorthand) the FreeThought Blogs perceived ‘side’ of some disagreements, is counterproductive to these aims. It is also unjust and harmful in itself, because it routinely demonises decent people who support equality but who have a different approach to it.

That’s not a good shorthand. There are a lot of bloggers on this network, and many of them don’t write about disputes within Anglophone atheism and secularism at all. It’s not fair to them to keep using the name of the network as a “shorthand,” especially when so many people use it not as a shorthand but as a code for “what we all hate.” I think Michael was hinting at that himself, frankly.


Some of these more mainstream media analyses imply that there is a single ‘atheist movement’, and that it is best analysed through some opinions of some mostly American bloggers and activists who, while committed and sincere and doing good work, are not representative of atheist activism worldwide.

There’s a whiff of xenophobia there. The claim isn’t really true, and it’s a little bit creepy.


In the last year or so, he has publicly accused Richard Dawkins of seeming to have developed a callous indifference to the sexual abuse of children…

On the basis of things RD wrote, no? I myself think Richard Dawkins has been displaying a callous indifference to the sexual harassment of women lately, because of things he’s said on Twitter. I’ve replied to Richard directly, and I’ve also blogged about what he’s been saying. I think people who have large influence and visibility have a particular responsibility to be fair and reasonable in what they say about such things.

Michael Shermer of multiple unreported serious crimes…

What are people supposed to do then? Keep the secrets forever? Never make any public warnings about guys who get handsy or ply women with alcohol in hopes of scoring? Just shut up, always, no matter what?

Item, the penultimate paragraph.

I believe that we should robustly question the ideas and behaviour of people who are, or who are perceived to be, authority figures in our own spheres of activity. I also believe that everyone, on various sides of these disagreements, should reconsider what I describe as the ethos of “You must be more compassionate, you fuckbrained asshole!”

Probably a good suggestion.

Updating to add, at Michael’s request –

There’s probably much in the post that I agree with. I skimmed much of it, and I probably agree with the skimmed part. I certainly agree that the Atheist Alliance International is a great thing. One of the many rewards of the Empowering Women Through Secularism conference in Dublin last summer was meeting and talking to Carlos Diaz.

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

Not unlike thought police witch-hunter lynch mobs

Sep 18th, 2014 10:53 am | By

Adam Lee sums up the most recent outbreaks at Comment is Free.

He was, like me, a big fan of Dawkins. Now? Not so much.

Neither of us just plunged into this not so much state randomly or on a whim, nor did we do so as an exciting new way to draw attention to ourselves. It had to do with reasons, with things he said and did.

But over the last few months, Dawkins showed signs of détente with his feminist critics – even progress. He signed a joint letter with the writer Ophelia Benson, denouncing and rejecting harassment; he even apologized for the “Dear Muslima” letter. On stage at a conference in Oxford in August, Dawkins claimed to be a feminist and said that everyone else should be, too.

I had my doubts about that last item, to be honest, because I was pretty sure he meant a very limited, conservative, Sommersesque brand of “feminism” there, the kind that is good with formal equality but appalled by any attempts to dispel stereotypes or improve attitudes and even behavior. His recent tweets on the subject have confirmed that.

Then another prominent male atheist, Sam Harris, crammed his foot in his mouth and said that atheist activism lacks an “estrogen vibe” and was “to some degree intrinsically male”. And, just like that, the brief Dawkins Spring was over.

On Twitter these last few days, Dawkins has reverted to his old, sexist ways and then some. He’s been very busy snarling about how feminists are shrill harridans who just want an excuse to take offense, and how Harris’s critics (and his own) are not unlike thought police witch-hunter lynch mobs. Dawkins claimed that his critics are engaged in “clickbait for profit”, that they “fake outrage”, and that he wished there were some way to penalize them.

For good measure, Dawkins argued that rape victims shouldn’t be considered trustworthy if they were drinking.

He also spelled out that it was Freethought Blogs specifically that he was accusing of all this – the network that includes Maryam Namazie, Taslima Nasreen, Tauriq Moosa, Kaveh Mousavi, Hiba Krisht, Avicenna, Nirmukta, Yemi Ilesanmi, etc etc etc.

Benson, with whom Dawkins had signed the anti-harassment letter just weeks earlier, was not impressed. “I’m surprised and, frankly, shocked by Richard’s belligerent remarks about feminist bloggers over the past couple of days,” she told me. “Part of what made The God Delusion so popular was, surely, its indignant bluntness about religion. It was a best-seller; does that mean he ‘faked’ his outrage?”

I still would really like to know the answer to that question. I would really like to know why it’s all right for him to be provocative but it’s just cynical money-seeking in people who criticize him.

On other occasions, Dawkins himself has emphasized the importance of awakening people to injustice and mistreatment they may have overlooked. But when it comes to feminism, he’s steadfastly refused to let his own consciousness be raised. Instead, he clings to his insular and privileged viewpoint – and, worse, he’s creating the impression that “true” atheists all share his retrograde attitudes.

Thus helping to ensure that atheism and secularism will remain divided and weak.

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

Guest post: A more complicated pissing on fire hydrants

Sep 17th, 2014 5:56 pm | By

Originally a comment by Brony on Thou shalt respect The Leaders.

Am I correct in remembering that Nugent was the one that tried to host the debate to heal the deep rifts earlier on? If so that matters.

On describing decency and demonization

So how does this,

I believe that atheist and skeptic people and groups, like all people and groups within society, should promote compassion, empathy, fairness, justice, equality and respect for people, combined with robust rational analysis of ideas.

…relate to this,

I believe that the approach taken by PZ Myers, and by some other people on (for shorthand) the FreeThought Blogs perceived ‘side’ of some disagreements, is counterproductive to these aims. It is also unjust and harmful in itself, because it routinely demonises decent people who support equality but who have a different approach to it.

…when it comes to the specific content of the characterizations PZ and others are making? He needs to define demonization.

I noticed that Nugent spared ZERO effort to actually describe the content of the controversies involving “decent people being demonized”. Is it demonization of me to suggest that Harris was dismissing his critics because he thinks that women are probably not good at criticism, because of estrogen? Those are not his literal words but I would be happy to defend that way of portraying his views. I don’t think that someone like that is acting like a decent person. If Nugent is willing to call out behavior he should be willing to get specific when he is taking sides. Otherwise this is a more complicated pissing on fire hydrants.

I don’t think that Dawkins is acting like a decent person when he literally gets personal in his rhetoric by dismissing critics as only in it for the money (and the other stuff that has been mentioned here). I don’t think that Shermer is a decent person after hearing Randi’s defense of him. Nugent is dry and tasteless without details.

I believe that the approach taken by PZ Myers has been central to the escalation of what some people call ‘the deep rifts’.

Actually some of us have decided to support him more openly BECAUSE is willing to escalate when appropriate. That is a skill I admire. Calling out behavior that is worth calling out is is critical to any society, especially among the leadership because they set moral and ethical tones for those below. I want a less hierarchical society but some parts of human psychology will be things to deal with as they are. I require Nugent to give me examples of when it is appropriate to escalate in order to take him seriously.

But something seems to happen to him when he gets behind a keyboard. He routinely demonises people in a way that he doesn’t do in person, and that he recognises as unfair when others do it to him. He routinely attacks people as individuals, as opposed to merely attacking their ideas or behaviour.

So why does Nugent keep making the claim that PZ demonized someone without actually trying to back it up? I don’t care if you are a commenter, a blogger, or the president of the united states if you are directing strong words at someone you have the responsibility to do a minimum level of demonstration. PZ and others at FTB outlined why they said what they said in specifics.

By specific I mean he should line these characterizations of what PZ said, with the reality to show why the are demonization.
*”He routinely attacks people as individuals, as opposed to merely attacking their ideas or behaviour.”
*accused “…Michael Shermer of multiple unreported serious crimes…”
*accused “…Russell Blackford of being a lying fuckhead.”
*”…described Robin Williams’ suicide as the death of a wealthy white man dragging us away from news about brown people…”
*”…a white lady who made racist comments looks like the kind of person who would have laughed at nanu-nanu…”
*”Richard Dawkins has been eaten by brain parasites and is grossly dishonest.”
*”Christina Hoff Sommers promotes lies about feminism and claims them as inalienable truths.”
*”Michael Shermer is a liar and an assailant”
*”Sam Harris has scurried off to write a tendentious and inexcusably boring defence of sticking his foot in his mouth.”

Some of these are worth talking about as problems too. But we can’t actually tell if a characterization is accurate without it being lined up with reality and I’m simply not satisfied that Nugent has even done that for himself with what I just read. He’s simply acting startled at tone towards authority figures and letting that direct his analysis. And of course he displays no problems with the tone or the content of Dawkins and Harris et al.

Dawkins inverted

Did anyone else notice the huge list of “atheists doing nice things” that was provided because Nugent was afraid of the atheist community looking bad because of press coverage? Dawkins was pointing at suffering that he believed was worse elsewhere in the world to get women to stop talking and to encourage others to stop paying attention to them. Nugent is now pointing at good stuff atheists are doing elsewhere in the world to get PZ to stop talking and encourage others to stop paying attention to him and FTB.

The measuring of “goods” is just as fallacious as the measuring of “bads” like suffering when figuring out of a behavior is appropriate. His piece could have been half as long and I would not have been insulted by him.

On tactics

I believe that this should include tackling sexism, racism, homophobia and other discriminatory biases in society, and making our groups and events welcoming to everybody who wants to be involved.

That is literally what is being done at FTB. Nugent is not helping by being an ally to sexists and creeps at best.

I believe that we can do this without routinely demonising good people who support equality but who have a different approach to it, without uncharitably misinterpreting tweets and impromptu comments as if they were formal pronouncements of misogyny, and without ignoring the principles of natural justice by publicly accusing named people of serious alleged crimes.

Given that we have no idea what he means by “demonization” there is no way to tell what he means by “ignoring the principles of natural justice”. Authorities calling out other authorities is probably part of natural justice for apes. Large numbers of people calling out authorities is natural for apes. But so is harassment and criticism can be harassment if done a certain way so I’m not saying that there is nothing that he could call demonization. I am saying that Nugent has done a terrible job of framing the conflict.

I believe that we should robustly question the ideas and behaviour of people who are, or who are perceived to be, authority figures in our own spheres of activity.

Why yes we should! So why did you ignore PZ, Ophelia Benson, Stephanie Zvan and others when they questioned Dawkins, Harris, Shermer and others? I get literally no impression from Nugent’s piece that he saw more than the twitter paraphrasing of this conflict.

Nugent is MASSIVELY mistaken in his piece and getting preemptively defensive should be unnecessary, unless he knows at some level that he did not do his homework.

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

Guest post: On Dawkins, hero worship, and doubling down

Sep 17th, 2014 4:55 pm | By

Guest post by Josh the SpokesGay

I’m pondering this and haven’t come to any firm conclusions, but I want to float it for conversation.

We’re seeing an enormous number of people (who we thought would know and do better) ignore the most awful behavior from Dawkins. Obviously, not just with him, mind. It’s sometimes staggering; it’s so surprising to see people one knows to be capable of independent thought and analysis turn so completely nasty and dishonest in their attempts to stop any suggestion that Dawkins might be wrong.

We know that people have heroes. We know that we, too, are subject to the same instinct to circle the wagons. But the degree to which Dawkins supporters are doing this genuinely stuns me. It is quite literally watching rational people become irrational, fact-free, religious (perhaps ‘tribal’ is better) adherents for whom no argument is too dishonest or low.

I suspect a structural tragedy is responsible: There simply are not enough venues in public discourse for disaffected secularists to build solidarity, a shared identity, and the confidence to push back against religious privilege. Especially for those with traumatic experiences of religion, Dawkins seems like a lifeline. Finally, somebody isn’t afraid to call the emperor out on his non-existent clothes.

It felt that way to me when Dawkins wrote The God Delusion. I understand this impulse. It’s normal, it’s not weird, and it’s there for good, justifiable reasons. The first fan letter I wrote was to Richard Dawkins, thanking him for being an “oasis” in a sea of privileged religious bafflegab. And I sent this to him even before TGD came out. That he wrote me back the very next morning had me on a cloud for days.

Shorter version: many people perceive, correctly or not, that Dawkins is the only or best “venue” for people like them starved for secular discourse. The threat of that being taken away (meaning that Dawkins might actually be a jerk, or that he may be so badly wrong on other counts that one has to find new heroes) is simply too much for them.

Perhaps that explains Nate Phelps, son of Fred Phelps. Undeniably traumatized by religion, one can understand why he might see Dawkins and his circle as a haven. I recently saw Nate compare Ophelia Benson, of all people, to his father, the vicious preacher Fred. No, he didn’t come right out and say “you’re as bad as he is.” But Nate did compare Ophelia’s stance on “the whole feminism -vs- secularism issue” to the “you’re either for us or against us” approach his fundamentalist father insisted on.

We see this a lot. People victimized by religious extremism often paint other, non-abusive forms of vehement position-staking as “just as bad as the fundamentalists.” They mistake the form for the content. They react against the act of uncompromisingly defending one’s position while not paying attention to the content of the position. They don’t seem to understand that it is not automatically Wrong to have confidence—even a degree of righteousness—in one’s opinion. What matters is whether that confidence is justified.

Whether you totally dig Ophelia or not, I hope anyone can see how badly wrong Nate’s comparison is. So—is it the perception/reality of the scarcity of robust secular voices and spaces, particularly in the US, that causes people to defend Dawkins doing the indefensible? Is it a deeper structural problem that can only be effectively addressed over a long time by building other and better “venues” for being a non-apologetic secularist?

Shortest of all: Is Dawkins a case of perceived but artificial scarcity?

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

We’re the thought police again

Sep 17th, 2014 12:34 pm | By

More managing disagreement ethically from Richard Dawkins.


Richard Dawkins ‏@RichardDawkins
The “Big Sister is Watching You” Thought Police hate @CHSommers’ Factual Feminism, and you can see why.

That’s ethical disagreement all right – calling feminists who don’t respect Christina Hoff Sommers ‘The “Big Sister is Watching You” Thought Police.’

What would the other kind look like?

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

Thou shalt respect The Leaders

Sep 17th, 2014 9:07 am | By

Michael Nugent has decided to defend Richard Dawkins and Michael Shermer from the violence and abuse of those evil Freethought bloggers. It’s not a very even-handed account of the situation, in my view.

Let me preface this post by saying that I accept that I might be mistaken in anything that I write, and that I am open to changing my mind on the basis of reasonable civil discussion. Also, I assume that I have done variations of at least some of the things I am complaining about others doing here.

I believe that atheist and skeptic people and groups, like all people and groups within society, should promote compassion, empathy, fairness, justice, equality and respect for people, combined with robust rational analysis of ideas. I believe that this should include tackling sexism, racism, homophobia and other discriminatory biases in society.

I believe that the approach taken by PZ Myers, and by some other people on (for shorthand) the FreeThought Blogs perceived ‘side’ of some disagreements, is counterproductive to these aims. It is also unjust and harmful in itself, because it routinely demonises decent people who support equality but who have a different approach to it.

I must be one of those “some other people on (for shorthand) the FreeThought Blogs,” since I’ve been blogging about the combative and/or antifeminist and/or sexist things that Sam Harris and/or Richard Dawkins wrote and/or said lately.

I am also concerned that distorted versions of these disagreements are now leaking into more mainstream media, as evidenced by recent sensationalised newspaper articles about Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, and by Mark Oppenheimer’s recent article, ‘Will Misogyny Bring Down The Atheist Movement?’, which is more comprehensive but not fully informed.

The many overlapping atheist advocates and movements

Some of these more mainstream media analyses imply that there is a single ‘atheist movement’, and that it is best analysed through some opinions of some mostly American bloggers and activists who, while committed and sincere and doing good work, are not representative of atheist activism worldwide.


I’m short on time today, because of pesky duties elsewhere. More later.

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

Got a brioche?

Sep 16th, 2014 6:36 pm | By

PZ has a terrific guest post by Marcus Ranum on the nasty undertones of the bullshit about “click bait.” I was going to quote from it when it was a comment, but when I got around to it it had graduated to being a post.

I automatically despise people who use the “clickbait” “to make money” argument. And here is why: it never seems to come from someone who is enduring economic hardship, and it implies that the person supposedly doing it is so desperate that they need the extra fractions of a cent they might get. If you’re a bestselling author and lecturer with an international stature with an estimated net worth of over $100 million, claiming that your detractors are pushing click bait amounts to asking “why don’t they eat cake?” (“Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”) yes in the internet era there is money to be made with click bait, but it requires huge volumes such as that driven by celebrity selfie leaks and sex tapes. From the sound of it, bloggers such as those on FTb and Patheos make vastly less blogging than someone of Dawkins’ stature commands from a single speaking engagement.

Vastly less. A fraction. It’s ludicrous that they think otherwise.

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

Representing the totality

Sep 16th, 2014 4:32 pm | By

My friend Muhammad Syed, co-founder and ED of EXMNA, has an open letter to Yale Humanists and Muslim Students Association at Hemant’s blog.

As an activist and an ex-Muslim, I have witnessed many attempts to prevent direly-needed conversations by those threatened by the voices of others. I am saddened to see this trend continue — namely, the letter signed by several student organizations at Yale in order to prevent Ayaan Hirsi Ali from speaking at their university.

I believe the Yale Muslim Students Association should be ashamed of their attempt to silence Hirsi Ali, and the Yale Humanists should be ashamed for being complicit in the effort.

There is no doubt that Hirsi Ali has made comments that are often deemed inflammatory to Muslims. Although I find myself often disagreeing with her stances, I admire her courage and stamina. No one has shed light on the barbaric practices continued in the name of Islam as forcefully as she has. The fact that she is one of the only ex-Muslims speaking out about these kinds of practices is not evidence that the abuse is rare or confined to small fundamentalist communities. Rather, it is evidence of the censure and targeting of those who are willing to speak frankly about Islam and demand change in the Muslim world.

In the letter, it is claimed that Hirsi Ali should not speak on Islam due to the fact that “she does not hold the credentials” to do so, and when she was given the opportunity to speak in the past, she “overlooked the complexity of sociopolitical issues in Muslim-majority countries and has purported that Islam promotes a number of violent and inhumane practices.”

To any liberal-minded person, this reasoning will sound weak at best and intolerant at worst. According to these Yale student organizations, only one who has the right “credentials” (a term that is not defined) and purports a positive view of Islam should be allowed to speak at their university.

It does seem like a very high bar, even if you agree that she’s said some very unpleasant things.

Although this behavior is regrettably expected from the Muslim Students Association (MSA), I’m shocked that the Yale Humanists have joined such an effort. In addition to co-signing the MSA’s letter, the Yale Humanists added that they don’t believe she represents the “totality of the ex-Muslim experience” in their own statement.

Which begs the question: Who, exactly, does represent a “totality” of an experience? Which ex-Muslim voice is “valid” enough or has the right credentials to critique Islam? Do Muslims need special “credentials” when speaking positively of Islam? Or is that requirement reserved only for those who do not believe that all religious traditions are the same and wonderful end-to-end? Do I have to believe (as Muslims do) that Islam is ultimately a peaceful religion or that Muhammad was a role-model for mankind before I’m deemed credible enough to speak about the faith?

Short answer? Yes.

…as a courageous Somali woman, Hirsi Ali’s existence alone is an inspiration to many, including one of our young Somali members who stated:

“I hate her views on current events and the statements she puts forth, she can be biased and too personal in her views, but there’s a place in my heart for her only because before, I literally thought it was impossible to be a female, Somali ex-Muslim so to deny her and being ‘offended’ by her visit, denies my existence socially from being known and accepted”.

As a former Muslim with friends and loved ones who are Muslim, I am disappointed with the behavior of the Muslim Students Association. There’s a pattern of silencing dissent that runs through the Muslim world both today and throughout much of its history, which we all need to work together to end. That effort should include all the signatories of the letter, including the Yale MSA, a group that I believe should lead the fight against fundamentalism and work towards fostering an open and honest dialogue.

But some members of the MSA perhaps think that stifling dissent is a core value of their religion…

You have the ability to help improve the lives of apostates, LGBTQ members of your community, and subjugated women. You can lobby to pass legislation on eliminating forced marriages and raise funds to help those who need to escape abusive situations instead of pretending as if it doesn’t happen in Muslim households. You can act as watchdogs and condemn those religious leaders who encourage women to stay with abusive families. You can encourage Muslim women to seek civil divorce instead of going through a patriarchal religious authority who, too often, denies them agency. You can both celebrate World Hijab Day and defend the right of women to reject modesty codes without facing social or legal repercussions. You can do so much more to better the state of Muslims and Muslim society, but instead you spend your time silencing criticism.

There are a million ways in which you can transform the world, but if you want a better tomorrow, a tomorrow that is clearly within your grasp, it requires moral and intellectual courage as well as honesty. That change will not come if Muslims refuse to accept criticism and their allies defend them, even at the cost of sacrificing the liberal values they hold dear.

Its a bad idea to defend allies at the cost of sacrificing the liberal values. A bad, bad, bad idea.

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

Guest post: And now they’re stuck

Sep 16th, 2014 3:43 pm | By

Originally a comment by =8)-DX on The cavalry has arrived.

I’m just going to try to give a really accommodating interpretation of the events:

James Randi, Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins: all agree women are human beings and should be treated as such. But in their specific, biased, tribal, personal, ordinary, everyday, exploitative, non-sexist!, clearheaded, logical, rational, fun-loving, emotional situations a crack has appeared. This is the crack through which feminist thought, language, experience, evaluations seeps through.

And they don’t know what the fuck to do. They’re not equipped for it. Because in the past three years they decided to ignore the rising tide of feminist voices. That wasn’t important, that couldn’t happen, they didn’t do it. And now they’re stuck.

When my favourite atheist YouTuber said “guys, don’t do that”, I thought I’d learned something new. But I was wholy ignorant of reality: atheist emancipation, feminist thought, equality, secularism and skepticism, can’t take place on a backburner of slow, incremental progress. I had to take into account the gender of each participant, I had to take into accout the legion of bigots who at every turn need to express a reluctance to change.

“If only people could get together, sit down and sort things out.” doesn’t work when most (90%?!) are operating on prejudice alone, expounding confirmation bias and have no problem shouting their ignorance to the world.

People: you’ve always helped me in my ignorance, by taking me to task. Why don’t the big names understand this? Because equal rights are not just a word, but a whole field of inquiry that takes years of research and listening to grasp.

Shutting up now.

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

Provoking outrage

Sep 16th, 2014 12:44 pm | By

I made another attempt to talk reason. I’m absurdly optimistic, aren’t I.

Richard Dawkins ‏@RichardDawkins 13h
Can it be true, some bloggers are paid by the click, and consequently fake outrage, or play the bully, in order to attract clicks? Hope not.

Answer to my question seems to be yes, and on-line newspapers may be worst offenders – deliberately touting for clicks by provoking outrage.

Ophelia Benson @OpheliaBenson
.@RichardDawkins What about you, Richard? 2 million TGD sold, yes? Outrages many, yes? So…what is your point? You good we bad? That’s it?

@RichardDawkins Haven’t you been – often laudably – provoking outrage for years now? Why rebuke other provokers? Are you being consistent?

@RichardDawkins I heard you provoking outrage on Seattle public radio 1996. Loved it, & nipped off to your reading at U bookstore.

@RichardDawkins Your voice was gone, so Lalla did the reading. Small group, but lively. Inspired me to be more vocal about my atheism.

@RichardDawkins So WHY are you treating “outrage” as a bad thing now, just because you don’t share it? Not fair or consistent.

@RichardDawkins Ok, you don’t like it when we criticise your friends. But do you really think that’s a good reason to fight dirty?

@RichardDawkins I do “outrage” posts all the time – about FGM, honor killings, the death of Savita Halappanavar, the pope, the bishops…

@RichardDawkins …abortion clinics closing all over the US, prayer in school, Boko Haram, witch-hunting (the real kind) in Nigeria…

@RichardDawkins …poverty, inequality, the massive rise in incarceration in the US, Ebola, “blasphemy” charges in Pakistan…

@RichardDawkins …and I doubt that you frown on any of that. Why now?

There’s been no reply. I don’t suppose he’ll ever reply. I don’t understand his thinking here.

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

Can it be true?

Sep 16th, 2014 11:01 am | By

So now Dawkins is going full-on sleaze, by talking like any random troll about bloggers “faking outrage” or “playing the bully” in order to make thousands of dollars per post.

Richard Dawkins ‏@RichardDawkins 11h
Can it be true, some bloggers are paid by the click, and consequently fake outrage, or play the bully, in order to attract clicks? Hope not.

I pointed out (in a tweet that I now can’t find, don’t ask me why) that he is paid per book, so should we assume he “fakes outrage” in his books in order to sell copies?

Updating, because I figured out why. (Forgot to hit “tweets & replies,” like a chump.)

Ophelia Benson @OpheliaBenson · 4h
@RichardDawkins Did you “fake outrage” or “play the bully” 2 attract royalties for TGD? No, I don’t think so – you wrote what you wanted to.

@RichardDawkins So how about assuming other people do the same unless you have VERY good reason to think otherwise?

Then I said no, we shouldn’t, so neither should he.

Ophelia Benson ‏@OpheliaBenson
.@RichardDawkins In other words, no. We don’t “fake” anything. That’s a ridiculous & unworthy accusation.

I guess I should have included another item in the joint statement.

Disagreement is inevitable, but bullying and harassment are not. If we want secularism and atheism to gain respect, we have to be able to disagree with each other without trying to destroy each other.

In other words we have to be able to manage disagreement ethically, like reasonable adults, as opposed to brawling like enraged children who need a nap. It should go without saying, but this means no death threats, rape threats, attacks on people’s appearance, age, race, sex, size, haircut; no photoshopping people into demeaning images, no vulgar epithets.

I should have added “no invidious surmises about hidden motivations without a very good reason.”

Dawkins has no good reason to surmise and then announce (or pretend to “ask if”) we have corrupt motivations. None. It makes no more sense to assume we’re “faking outrage” about sexist claims about women than it does to assume he’s “faking outrage” about theism and godbothering.

Stephanie has his worst tweets over the last few hours in a post.

This is probably the prize-winner:

Richard Dawkins ✔ @RichardDawkins

Follow @CHSommers. You may not agree with her but she’s brave, & the Feedingfrenzy Thoughtpolice Bullies have got away with it for too long.
12:28 AM – 16 Sep 2014

Got away with what? Disputing our betters?

They really do think we’re lèsing their majesté.

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