Blogathon Wrap Up

I know this is a few days late, but I think it’s nice to have a place where all the posts are in the same place. I also really wanted to have a place to put this beautiful word cloud I made on wordle. It has all the words from all my blogathon posts, scaled to reflect the frequency of their use. I love that I seem to talk about people a lot. The other top words are pretty broad: think, just, know, like, good. They’re my go-to verbs, adjectives and adverbs. But there’s also: math, religious, questions, atheists and argue, and that all seems to describe me pretty well.

blogathon word cloud

For those looking for what I wrote, here are the posts:

My Blogathon Announcement: Where I said I was doing it and explained why I thought it was important.

Beginning Blogathon: Where I talked about why the Secular Student Alliance is so important and wonderful (and also how I got lost getting to where I was going)

What I’ve Learned as President of the Secular Alliance at the University of Chicago: Just a bunch of thoughts on what makes groups succeed and thrive.

On Challenging Religious Beliefs: On why I’m working on not seeing challenging religious beliefs in social settings or online as so cringe-inducing, and why I’m glad people actually do it. (Big honking caveat: All normal social conventions like appropriateness and respect obviously need to apply)

Maaaaaaaath: How and why math is so freaking great. Includes crocheted hyperbolic spaces and some light cursing.

Emotion-based Arguments and the Atheist Community: On my suspicion that arguments about infighting and about accomodationism vs confrontationism might be based more on emotional bias than on good arguments.

Safe Spaces for Racists: On what a space where people could ask “politically incorrect” questions without hurting people might look like. Note: title is meant to be catchy/provocative, not an accurate description of what I’m hoping for. By the way, if you like that post, you might like this one, called, “You Want a Space for Political Incorrectness? You Got It“, in which I announce I’m actually trying to create this space.

Brain Crack: A bunch of silly random ideas I’ve had floating around, like getting kids to teach their own classes and having churches serve as homeless shelters.

That’s all! Thanks so much for reading.

You Want a Space for Political Incorrectness? You Got It

Last Sunday, I laid out what I thought a proper space for “politically incorrect” questions and opinions would look like, because such a space can go drastically, cruelly, wrong. Now, I’ve decided to make one. I’m making a subreddit where those questions and opinions can get answers.

There are many reasons people might have a question about race, sex, disability, or related issues they’re afraid to ask their friends, family or teachers. They may not know how to phrase it respectfully. They may have a question that they know will offend but that they’re desperate to know the answer to. They may actually be bigots who are looking to make people mad. For whatever reason, I think there should be a space where, if they abide by principles of respect, civility and good faith, they should get their questions answered. The subreddit I intend to create will be an educational and discussion-based place. Questions will be answered without judgement. Answers will explain how and why some actions or word are appropriate or not, and place questions of bigotry or prejudice in their proper academic, sociological, political, economic and historical context. They will inform and educate while minimizing harm to the relevant marginalized groups. They will include concrete tips, approaches and scripts, so as to really help people move forward in the world. They will be respectful, civil and charitable, perhaps far more charitable than what is deserved. After all, charity can be totally badass activism.

This will be its own space, with its own rules. I do not think these rules make sense elsewhere, nor should people have to abide by them elsewhere. But I like the idea of a place where everyone agrees to be just ridiculously civil and respectful, to use their emotional energy or their privilege or their desire to educate to great effect. This is not the only form of education and activism. There are many others, which are crucial and vital and must exist as well. But this is a form that I think there isn’t enough of. Tumblr upon tumblr will tell people that it is their job to educate themselves about social justice issues. That may be right. So this is one place they can do it.

Some of the rules:

  • No slurs unless you’re asking about them
  • Disrespectful/cruel/obnoxious questions and comments get deleted
  • Unhelpful/uncharitable/not-intended-to-educate responses get deleted, even if they’re completely correct
  • The mods enforce these rules and give users suggestions on how to be more respectful or helpful.

You can find more of the rules here and at the actual subreddit when it goes live.

If you think this is important and useful, if you agree largely with what I’ve written here, and you want to get involved, look out for the link when the subreddit goes live! And if you want to be even more involved, I want you to be a moderator for the subreddit. Just answer a few questions here, and if you have the same vision I do, you’re in!

I think this could do some real good. Here’s hoping!


P.S. If anyone is wondering why I think this is so important, here’s something I wrote in a blog post about Social Justice education some time ago:

I do not deny for a second that it can seem like a waste of time, that it can be painful, and that rather more often than we might hope, the people we’re arguing with are not arguing in good faith. That is why we leave it to individuals to decide whether it is worth their time and effort. But those not willing to do this kind of work should not stand in its way. They should not base their arguments on assumptions others do not share and be surprised when they are not understood. They should not make it more difficult for others to do the challenging work by interrupting ongoing conversations with jeering and mockery. And most of all, while there are perfectly good reasons to stop being able to have a conversation or to not enter one in the first place, no one should engage in arguments with people who might be persuaded if they have no intention of taking the process seriously. Ideas rise and fall every day in the public sphere, and there’s no reason to lose arguments or adherents because some don’t think the work of public reason is worth doing properly.

If you want to know more about my take on activism, social justice, better arguing and charity, check out these links:

[Blogathon] On Challenging Religious Beliefs

I have a confession to make: I have an entirely negative attitude towards people who ask religious people about their beliefs. When I hear at a party, “But how do you know God exists?” or when I hear over a Friday night dinner table, “But what about the contradictions in the bible?” or anything similar in any social situation, I cringe and walk the other way. Part of that is for decent reasons: I have no reason to expect that anything will be said I haven’t heard a hundred times before, the conversation is likely to be unproductive and/or combative, and there’s high probability of someone getting offended or upset. I honestly don’t want any part of that, especially in a social context.

But that doesn’t really excuse how little I think of the people asking. If I’m being honest, I see asking such questions as low-status. They are, to me, a marker of a 101-type, a newly christened atheist still asking the basic questions. Atheism is boring, after all. There are so many other questions to discuss besides God. I would obviously never be so gauche as to ask my friends what evidence they have for god; my intellectual sophistication means that I instead discuss Talmudic sources and argue about the consistency of John Calvin’s theology.

This is what a page of Talmud looks like, by the way

This attitude also means I’ve bought wholeheartedly into the truth of the Courtier’s Reply. That is, atheists are silly to counter the claims of fundamentalists or youtube commenters. Those are easy to rebut. If you were to read Platinga (I haven’t) or Calvin or Luther or Vatican II, you would understand. Again, it’s a marker of low-status to be pointing out silly things like lack of evidence or evil in the world. Haven’t you examined the best possible counterarguments to your position? Humph, done with you, I’m off to read Luke Muelhauser and Leah Libresco, they’re atheists (or used to be) who take religion seriously.

Now, I’m not throwing out all of this approach. I do think discussions about God at a party are largely uninteresting and unproductive, I do think asking such questions gives me good evidence that someone is a 101 level atheist, and I do think that atheists could stand to know more about common counterarguments to their positions.

But I am deeply questioning the morality and accuracy of my position. Firstly, the sneering superiority really isn’t a good look for anyone. Atheism isn’t my primary hobbyhorse, and I might argue it shouldn’t be anyone’s, but that doesn’t mean that the people who like to argue about it a lot or talk about it a lot are to be looked down on. People have their interests and their preferences, and it’s much more appropriate for me to disagree with the extent to which these people have implicitly prioritized their atheism than to dismiss them entirely. (Somewhat to my credit, consistency-wise, is that I tend not to have a lot of patience for anyone who has just the One Big Thing that they care about, hence my general disapproval of hedgehogs. But the whole low-status business is pretty disgusting on my part.)

Furthermore, some subset of the people who talk about atheism a lot online or in person are new to atheism. Anyone new to a belief system and community deserves the space and patience to do the whole 101-thing, to figure it out for themselves. We should be happy and excited that they’re asking questions and being skeptical, and recognize that there are things we’re all still figuring out. That’s how we make atheism a safe place to land.

Also, I’m often secretly happy that this kind of person challenges religious people, and actually makes them argue for their position. As we know, religious people frequently get a pass on their beliefs that no one else gets on any other type of belief, and I’m only contributing to that state of events by not asking. Good on them for being willing to have the intense conversations, even if I wish they were more charitable and/or less focused on “winning.” And after all, without Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Jacoby, Dennet and others writing books that tackle these issues, the atheist movement really wouldn’t be what it is today, whatever else one might say about them.

On the empirical part, I’m currently reading the entirety of Calvin’s Institutes for a class, and I recently attended a Veritas Forum on Truth and Tolerance that I livetweeted. You know what I’ve noticed? The sophisticated arguments for the truth of scripture and the existence of God? Really not much better than the ones I see on facebook every day. Why is humanity sinful? Because of the fall. Why did god make us fall? He didn’t, we did. Then we have free will? No. Then why is it our fault? It was necessary, but also voluntary. Why would god make our wills such that we would fall? God is perfect. Really? Yes. (The format is different, but this is the actual content of Calvin’s argument). Similarly, the Christian (David Skeel) at the Veritas forum made utterly uncompelling arguments for the existence of god and the redemption of Christ. So I seem to have been wrong about at least a large part of the my belief in the Courtier’s Reply.

That’s why at the Veritas Forum, I asked Professor Skeel what it was like to live in a world where most of the people he cares about and interacts with were going to hell. He’s a public intellectual, making public claims about the nature of the world I think are both wrong and disturbing. Many, many other religious people are making similar claims, equally wrong and equally distressing. They should have to defend those claims, and the fact that I think it’s boring or low-status to be the one to make them doesn’t erase that truth.

Professor Skeel himself

Now, I think there’s a difference between public intellectuals and people at a party or online. And I think there’s definitely a difference between people who personally believe things and people who are very public about them. But I no longer think it is a useless or rude thing to ask about and challenge religious beliefs (except when it is, and I trust my readers can figure out appropriate contexts). I may still find it uninteresting, and I may still find many of the actual arguments made in such discussions uncharitable or badly made, but I am committed to working on no longer seeing the very act of asking as a low-status thing to do, as something worthy of derision. On the contrary, it’s deeply important.

Green Donate

Midnight Run: What I Learned When I Stopped Doing Nothing and Helped People

There are a lot of reasons not to do charity. Personally, I come up with new ones every day.


When I say “sorry” to homeless people who ask for money on the street, passing them without giving, I think to myself, “There’s no way this is the most efficient use of my money for good. Also they might use it for drugs and alcohol. Also I’m tired and I have places to be. And it’s not even my money, most of it is my parents’.” Plenty of that is true, of course, but it’s also true that I generally don’t donate to charities and I have extra cash almost all the time and it would likely mean a great deal to these people if I donated and it is especially true that I spend my parent’s money on far less worthy things.

But let’s say all of it is true and just because I don’t do better things with money doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do at least some, less good things. Maybe I don’t have the time?

Except, my time isn’t worth a lot (I’m currently doing two different unpaid internships. My time is not just worthless, it is doubly worthless. Which, to be fair, is still just worthless.) So, presumably, I should do good things with it, like volunteer or, for the purposes of this post, help out the homeless.

So maybe there are other reasons it’s a bad idea. I mean, isn’t it just putting a band-aid over more systemic issues? And people aren’t hungry in this country, right? And Maimonides had a thing somewhere about not doing charity for other people in which they know who you are. And if I were homeless, I wouldn’t want privileged rich kids feeling all righteous and virtuous because they took one night off from drinking or watching Youtube videos to make and hand out basic sandwiches, the cheapest apples they could find, and three shirts someone was kind enough to take off his back root out of a pile of things he likely never wears (which is still better than almost everyone else, myself included, who did not donate any clothes).

So I, wracked by guilt and paralyzed by indecision, do nothing. I am not sure where or how to give money, so I do not give at all. I am not sure that this is the right decision, so I do not look those who ask in the eye, worried that at some level they know that my smile and conversation would be a self-serving act intended to alleviate my guilt over not doing what seems like the obviously correct things by replacing a donation that would help them with a greeting that helps me because I get to be proud of “treating them like a human” and therefore being better than everyone else on the street. But, of course, I don’t even have that, because I don’t do it at all.

The truth is, I do not give food or money to the homeless because I am embarrassed. I am embarrassed at how little I am doing compared to how much I could do. I am embarrassed that I am abusing my privilege, that I am Othering the homeless, that I might be causing more harm than good. I am embarrassed that I might be, in the end, making the wrong decision, and my heartfelt sincerity is my socially evolved emotions’ joke on me. I am embarrassed that my friends might find out, and think how silly I am, to do something so gauchely earnest instead of engaging in further argumentation about Foreign Aid legislation and welfare politics. I am embarrassed to be doing something that I know looks good to others when I do not totally believe in it myself, even though I’ve been doing social justice projects my whole life.

What this means, of course, is that more privileged than spending money on conferences instead of malaria nets, more elitist than acting as if other humans are not worth my time, more self-serving than potentially getting more out of charity in the form of gratification and a sense of righteousness than I give in help or kindness, worse than all of that, I decided that my embarrassment was more important than their need.

It took doing the Uri L’Tzedek Summer Fellowship’s annual mandatory-for-fellows Midnight Run on Tuesday night to get me to shut up my over-active hyper-analytical excuse-finding machine that sits atop my neck. We signed up ahead of time, made about 100 sandwiches, put them in paper bags with cookies, juice boxes and snacks, and went in a van to preset spots to give them away. When we handed out the bags, we also spent time talking to the people we saw. This is fraught, too; who are we, to be entitled to their stories and their lives, when we would expect nothing of the kind from the housed? And yet, they spoke to us freely and happily, and those that did not want to talk were not pushed. We learned that Jose’s parents died when he was young, and Cynthia has a nursing degree and a terrible employment agency. Another woman told us she loved us and gave us all hugs. They often formed a network, telling us where their friends were and how long it had been since they’d eaten. One man hadn’t had anything to eat in two days. Overall, they preferred tuna sandwiches to peanut butter. It was wonderful, joyous, friendly, amazing. I felt happy; I felt like the evidence of the happiness and gratefulness I was causing showed I was doing the right thing, or at least a right thing.

What did I learn?

That empathy has limits. Empathy is a process of plugging a situation into your brain and letting it spit out what you might feel. It does brilliantly at illuminating the truths of what it means to be other people in the face of humanity’s overwhelming commonalities. It crosses barriers, extends care and undermines Otherizing. But empathy fails to contribute to understanding when there are real differences of experience and circumstance to contend with, and such is the case here. What I think I might feel is less than unhelpful; it turned out to be actively counterproductive, and exactly wrong.

That, contrary to popular belief, people still go hungry in this country.

That kindness, a willingness to engage, and a respect for choice go a long way.

That charity is a severely political act.

That even if we get more than we give, it’s a getting that doesn’t take.

I don’t think everyone should necessarily start giving money or food to the homeless. There are many reasons not to. Find whatever moves you, or maximizes the variable you’re looking for. But if what’s stopping you from doing something good is constant fear of doing it wrong, you should just do it. Grab friends, or do it alone. Sign up with a group, go with a church or a community service group or Volunteers Beyond Belief. Do it thoughtfully, of course, with as much care and respect and planning as possible.

When the stakes (your embarrassment, possibly making a fool of yourself, maybe doing a suboptimally good thing) are so low, you should just try. There’s time and space to improve; we don’t have to get it right the first time. If we get Food Aid wrong, we can destroy the economy of a small country. But if we get the everyday things wrong, the worst we have done is given sandwiches to those who are hungry, or lost a few dollars to the vicissitudes of humanity, or faltered while learning how to do good. So you try, and you learn, and you reflect, and then you get to do more good tomorrow.

This is going to sound saccharine, but I don’t want to be embarrassed of that anymore, so here goes:

Go make the world a better place. Even if you’re scared. We all are.

SSA Conference 2011 Point of Interest 2: Part and Whole

This has been cross-posted at the University of Chicago Secular Alliance Blog.

This is really only vaguely about the conference, but bear with me.

Why does the Secular Movement (or Skeptical, or Atheist, or whatever) exist? Well, that’s an interesting and complicated question, and people answer it in a lot of different ways. The different visions that people have for their own communities or the movement are fascinating, and I imagine that they come out of differences not only in personal expectations, but also experiences of social communities and religious communities and how those are compared. All this is to say that I’m often curious about Secular Student Alliance affiliates across the United States and how they see themselves and the services they provide. I expect that some focus a great deal on their own communities, on their schools and on the community that they can provide for their members, which makes perfect sense in a variety of contexts, including, for example, a highly religious institution where there are few resources other than those who are already in the group. For my group, however, I take a different tack, which is to see our group as part of and inextricably linked to the broader movement. The reasons for this are several.

Firstly, I just think there are a lot of really good reasons to work with other groups and form regional alliances. I actually gave a talk at SSA on this very subject (link to notes here and slides here). For the tl;dr among you, the ideas is all of the resources and ideas you and your group have have analogous counterparts in other groups, and putting those together can help out with all manner of problems, from lack of funds to lack of ideas to hostility from religious groups and people around you.

Secondly, the University of Chicago is a secular university. I don’t just mean that it is not officially affiliated with a religious organization. I mean that ~60% of freshmen who fill out a certain form that asks about a great deal of demographic information every year pick nonreligious, or none, or spiritual on the religion question (unfortunately, I can’t find a citation). That’s crazy. It makes our organization a totally different beast than one at, say, the University of Alabama. Much of our discussions (at least in exec-land) focus on the question of ‘Atheism: So what?’ or, less bleakly, ‘Atheism: Now what?’ because, except perhaps for the new students at the beginning of the year (oh my god the first years all arrived yesterday. SO MANY OF THEM), most people are pretty set on atheism. There are a few agnostics, and there are some philosophical differences in approaches to naturalism and atheism and metaphysics in general, but there are rather extreme limits on the amount that people want to talk about those things, so we have to think and talk about other things. My approach has involved various aspects of thought, action and life that, while not necessarily explicitly atheistic, appeal to atheists in particular, by dint of the way the movement is going (humanism and volunteering) or because once you don’t believe in god, other things become more palatable (transhumanism).

Those are going to be integrated throughout this year, and I want to talk about them a lot more in a different post, but more than all of that, a great answer to ‘Atheism: now what?’ is now people! Now a movement! Now a blogosphere and conferences and people who are thinking further and arguing with each other and creating a community that argues about gender issues and funds Damon Fowler’s college education. And that’s why when I ran for president of this organization, my ‘platform’, as it were, was about connecting us to the larger movement, because there is so much out there, especially when you’ve satisfactorily answered the basic questions for yourself. If you haven’t, that’s fine too, and the community has plenty to offer you if that’s the case, but if there is a fear of running out of things to do or think about or talk about, the community *really* has a lot to offer.

So I really wrote this post in order to gush about the amazing things that are going to happen this year, and how this wonderful community has allowed them to happen. Essentially, I’ve decided that one of the focuses should be on bring in interesting speakers, because they provide us with new perspectives and tend to be really friendly and nice people. I’ve also decided, with help, that many of those speakers shouldn’t necessarily be The Big Bloggers of Atheism, because there are so many unsung heroes who have all kinds of interesting things to say and also while the abstraction we call a community is all manner of excellent, the actual community around this physical location is pretty spectacular too, and so I want to make use of that.

To that end, we are bringing in, at minimum: Serah Blain, Jamie Bernstein, Hemant Mehta, Debbie Goddard (hopefully) and Greta Christina. Ok so it doesn’t look like that many written out like that (although there are many more we have in the works), but it is infinitely exciting to me, especially because of the ways in which these happened. Serah Blain works for the Arizona Secular Coalition for America, and she’s also a good friend of mine, and she’s coming in three weeks (only three weeks!!) to talk to us about activism and lobbying (a great post-answering-the-question-of-no-god activity). And how did I get such a great speaker? Well, I met her at the AHA Conference last April (recap here) and we got along quite well, and then we saw each other at SSA Conference this summer and, while I can’t speak for her, I kind of fell for her (in a mostly platonic way :) ) and we hit it off and now she’s coming! Similarly, Greta Christina, blogger extraordinare and major atheist celebrity, is actually, shocker of all shockers, a person, one who is so much fun to hang out with, and one who wants to come to Chicago and talk to us. And so she is. This is not an Everyone-Should-Go-To-Conferences post, because there are class and education issues with that, but it is evidence of how much the community is already doing for me. Jamie works in the area and in fact just graduated from the University of Chicago, Debbie Goddard and I have been talking about her coming out since the beginning of last year, and Hemant, while a big name, is also a local.

So..MASSIVE EXCITEMENT. Thank you, atheist movement. I think this year will be wonderful for me, and I hope for the rest of the Secular Alliance at UofC, and especially for the new members. First years, I’m looking at you.