[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.

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[Blogathon] What I’ve Learned as President of the Secular Alliance at the University of Chicago

As I may have mentioned once or twice, I’ve been the president of the University of Chicago’s affiliate of the national Secular Student Alliance for two years. It all started when, as a first year, I found out about this new group, comprised of maybe 8 people, who got together and talked about atheism. I loved it. I was in my Dawkensian stage, when religion was stupid and I was brilliant for having figured it out. The group was fun, lively and argumentative. At the end of that year, I decided I wanted to be more involved, so I ran for secretary, and won. The same year, I became president of the Jewish social justice student group Jewish Action, so I was really thrust into the steep end of the learning curve of how student groups are run. But I still loved it, so when the president that year stepped down, I ran for president. That was an incredibly hard year. I had professional and social difficulties with some peers in the group, membership dwindled as the year went on, our events’ occasional successes seemed to be a matter of luck more than planning, and I just didn’t know how to make things better. Nonetheless, that year I ran my first ever Carl Sagan Day, Darwin Day and Ask an Atheist Day. We had a game night. We had some good meetings. The club persevered.

At that point, I was exhausted. I thought I was done. Someone else could take on the totally thankless job of planning meetings week after week, delegating to exec knowing I would have to do it all myself anyway and coordinating large scale events that would get a crowd looking only for free food. But then, for reasons still not totally known to me, I ran again. I still wanted to be part of the effort for what I thought was an important cause. I wanted to give my efforts to where I still thought they could do some good.

And without claiming that last year was a failure, since it absolutely was not and had many good moments, this year has been so much better. We (with DePaul and Northwestern) had another Sagan Day, bigger and better than ever. Our membership has grown, we’ve had successful social events, our meetings are bigger and more fun, our events are better, and I have a great deal of hope for the future.

On this long and taxing way, I’ve learned a few things about running a Secular Alliance group, and I’d like to share them. (I’m sure a lot of them would translate to other student groups as well.)

What I’ve Learned as President of the Secular Alliance at the University of Chicago

  1. Not everyone who isn’t talking in meetings is bored or uncomfortable. They may just like to listen or want to learn. That said, it’s totally fine to ask them privately if there’s anything you can do to make meetings more comfortable for them. Just make sure to believe them if they say no.
  2. Intellectual meeting topics are fine (we’ve talked about transhumanism, vegetarianism, death, bias, Islamophobia, ethical obligations of politicians and more), but when leading a discussion, ask questions that allow people to share stories from their lives. We’re not all West Wing characters; we can’t list statistics at the drop of a hat. But even the most abstract ideas make for good conversation if people can connect it back to their experiences and share them with others. The idea is to care what people think and where they’re coming from, not about the conclusions the group may reach.
  3. Intersperse the nonintellectual meetings! Maybe I’m the only group leader to have trouble with this, but I thought that at UChicago, I didn’t dare have nonintellectual meetings. Turns out, all college students like meetings where you just hang out and meet each other, Funny Youtube Video meetings, Creationist Bingo, egg drops off an enormous chapel, and the like.
  4. On the same note, not all meetings have to be atheist/agnostics/secular-related. We’re a community! We like talking about all bunches of things! Mix it up!
  5. On the other hand, don’t be afraid to do the atheism 101 stuff. There’s a reason we all are in the club. Talking about it is a good thing, in moderation. Why don’t we believe in god? Does religion do more harm than good? Totally reasonable questions.
  6. It’s ok for things not to work out. Planned a movie night and three people showed up? Great! That’s three people who are going to have a good evening because of you. You’ll figure out how you can improve publicity and get a bigger turnout next time. (I’m very much still working on this one). One meeting was kind of awkward? Oh well! It’ll be better next time. You’ll try something different, and see whether that works. None of us are experts at this.
  7. Follow-up to that: everyone is not judging you all the time. Your members aren’t looking for ways to think badly of you or waiting for you to fail. They’re just looking for your leadership, and they will forgive when things go wrong.
  8. Delegate and demand! Execs should be helpful. If they’re going to be in a position of leadership, it’s ok to demand that they step up and actually be helpful. They should contribute to meetings, give ideas for events and speakers, be delegated to and follow through on responsibilities, and not shirk their duties to you and the organization. Those are acceptable things to demand from them. It’s sometimes better to have no exec than a bad one.
  9. But also, have a big exec! People with named responsibilities are far more likely to follow through on them, as well as show up to meetings and contribute. As long as they’re not making your job harder, there are very few downsides to a lot of exec members. More people to do work, more burden sharing, more fun exec meetings, and more opportunities for first and second years to get involved, making transitions easier and more secure.
  10. The end of a club isn’t a failure. Just as a relationship’s success should be measured not by whether or not it ends but what it gave to the participants, a club was worthwhile if it improved the lives of the people in it, not only if it lasts forever. Any president of a student group should be proud of themselves for leading a group for whatever length of time, if they sincerely worked to give a tangible benefit to those in the group. It’s hard work.
  11. And on that note, this is hard work. It’s ok to be scared. It’s ok to be overwhelmed. It’s ok to be frustrated or mad or annoyed or sad. The work is exhausting and thankless, and you should be proud of yourself. It’s ok to make one meeting just a hangout if you don’t have the energy, or delegate an entire event to other people. And it’s definitely ok to ask for help. That’s what all other group leaders around the country are here for. And by the way, that’s what the Secular Student Alliance is there for. Which is why they could really use your donation! Any small amount you have helps!

Group leaders or group members, what did I miss? Add in comments or on twitter!

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Excuses, Excuses, and Blogathon Begins!

As with all intrepid warriors on a quest, I encountered obstacles on my way to beginning Blogathon this morning. My dragons were CTA closings, Sunday train schedules, and my complete inability to distinguish the Purple Line from the Yellow Line. All intrepid heroes go to Skokie on their way to Evanston, right? For those of you who don’t know quite what this says about me, I’ve screenshotted a map of the route I was supposed to take. Note Skokie off to the west. Yeah…


Combine that with a few bouts of very bad internet luck, and you have my promise to start Blogathon at 10am in tatters. So the new plan is to blog from noon to sometime in the mid-evening, with a post every 45 minutes to make up for the late start.

And as I did last year, I’d like to take the opportunity to talk about why I’m doing this.

I know first-hand what incredible resources religious students on college campuses have at their disposal. Houses, mentors, communities, internships, jobs, educational and entertaining programming, spiritual and emotional support, student groups, money, encouragement are all awaiting a Jewish or Christian student upon setting foot on most college grounds. Clubs, ministries and houses of worship all bend over backwards to ensure that religious students have the best possible experience (religious or not, often) throughout their college careers. Just at the University of Chicago, there are about 10-12 Jewish events going on every week. That tells me, as a Jew, that I am welcome, and that there are resources for me.

Secular or nonreligious students have none of these. Of course, they have access to the same nonreligious student clubs as everyone else: dance, debate, political clubs and cultural groups are available to all. But any religious student engaged in religious life knows that there is often something special about having a group centered about that part of their life. I think that secular students deserve that community, too. And that is why I am a huge supporter of the work the Secular Student Alliance does. They work tirelessly to provide the resources that allow students on college (and high school!) campuses to create and foster those communities. They provide group running guides, tabling supplies, meeting ideas, and tons of support so that secular students can, on their own, create the kind of organization that religious groups do with ten times less funding and institutional support.

I am so thrilled to have been President of my school’s Secular Alliance for the past two years. I hope that I’ve provided a community that atheists, agnostics, deists, pastafarians and freethinkers at the University of Chicago have been happy to call their own. I am excited to see what it does in the future. But none of it would have been possible without the Secular Student Alliance.

If you believe in that vision, or you feel sorry for me for going all the way to Skokie this morning, I ask you to donate to the Secular Student Alliance. Even $5 helps.

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This Sunday, I’m going to be blogging every hour (or possibly every half hour, or 45 minutes or something) from 10am-6pm (or something like that. Obviously, I don’t have this all figured out) for Blogathon!

SSA Week Banner

Blogathan is an annual event during SSA week in which many bloggers blog far more than they normally would to raise awareness and money for the Secular Student Alliance. During this time, donations will be matched! You donation is doubled! So, just like last year, I’ll be joining them, along with my dear friends Kate Donovan, Miri Mogilevsky and Mike Mei.

I’ve been the president of the University of Chicago’s affiliate of the Secular Student Alliance for two years, and it has been a tremendously important part of my college experience. (You can check out some of the work we do on our website.) I have seen first hand what valuable work the building of secular communities is, and how well the community can serve the nonreligious on campus who have no other built-in community for them. The Secular Student Alliance does amazing work supporting groups all over the country.

If you think the work of secular activism is important, please consider donating. If you think that secular people having communities where they can come together and be themselves is important, please consider donating. And if you think that every college and high school student deserves a place to question religion or think about their atheism or agnosticism seriously, please consider donating.

So, join me! Check out the other blogathoners all week, comment on the posts I and my compatriots write, donate, suggest topics to me in comments here or on twitter, and by the way, if you donate $20 or more, I’ll write a post on a topic of your choice.

You can see all the things I wrote about during last year’s blogathon here.

If you’re not convinced yet, here’s Greta Christina and Leah Libresco telling you why you should care about SSA and donate.

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A Personal Journey to Rationalism

(Reading my last post on hedgehogs and foxes is useful, but not at all required, to understand this post)

When I was younger, I used to be obsessed with the phrase “logically consistent worldview.” I really, really wanted one. It seemed like the kind of thing that good intellectuals needed to have if they were going to properly navigate the world. How could you even begin to respond to an event if you didn’t have a fully integrated ethics, metaphysics and epistemology? Sounds silly, I know, but the wikipedia article on Weltanschauung (worldview) became very important to me. I constantly made lists of what I believed at any given time, and what I was still working out. I even began trying to fill out this set of required building blocks for a worldview:

    1. An explanation of the world
    2. A futurology, answering the question “Where are we heading?”
    3. Values, answers to ethical questions: “What should we do?”
    4. A praxeology, or methodology, or theory of action: “How should we attain our goals?”
    5. An epistemology, or theory of knowledge: “What is true and false?”
    6. An etiology. A constructed world-view should contain an account of its own “building blocks,” its origins and construction.

I actually tried to have an answer for every single one of these. And what I figured out quickly was that it was incredibly hard. I would literally be kept up nights worrying about how I was going to reconcile environmentalism and a progress-appreciative attitude towards human society and civilization, or how I as a feminist was supposed to feel about breast augmentation surgery. “The environment matters!” I would say to myself. “But we can’t take a conservationist attitude,” I would also say.” It’s inherently conservative and stops us from making bigger and more technologically advanced cities! And maybe technology would make things more environmentally-friendly, if given the chance!” And then choice! Feminism is about choice! So women (/transmen, but I wasn’t that sophisticated then) should be able to do what they want with their bodies! But feminism can’t accept all choices, or what would be the point? Shouldn’t stop women from objectifying themselves? How can I support a cosmetic surgery that just makes women more sexually available to men? But also shouldn’t they be able to do that if they want?


It was an all-consuming, constant intellectual project. I would apply my model to new things, and it would work, and then work, and then every so often, not work, and I would watch it crash and burn. Then I would be uncomfortable and agitated until I came upon an epiphany wherein I could bring all of the parts together and once again have a unified model.

What was my problem? I was trying to be a hedgehogTrying very, very hard, in fact. I wanted a perfect, consistent model to explain and respond to the world. I wanted to understand it.

But in being beholden to a fundamental idea like “feminism is about choice”, I was either stuck when I hit things I would really rather not call feminist, or I had to somehow incorporate more than one fundamental idea together, which almost always causes problems.

(For people who know ring theory: It’s like trying to have a principal ideal with two generators. Doesn’t make sense)

If feminism is about choice, it partitions the world into two categories, feminist and not feminist. And if feminism is fundamentally about some other thing as well, we have another partition, which generally doesn’t map perfectly onto the first one (or there would be no point in having two). So now we have things that aren’t feminist in either sense and things that are feminist in both senses. Easy enough. But what about the things that are feminist in one sense but not in another? Either you have to start creating complicated rules about how the rules interact with each other, or you give up the crystalline, rule-based way of looking at things. Then you get to say that, according to your values, this kind of approach is X amount important, and this policy, according to the facts, helps women Y amount, and so on, and then form reasoned opinions about what will work out best, instead of what fits the model best.


What should the venn diagram look like?

And that’s my concern with all hedgehogish systems. Now, maybe I just didn’t alight upon the perfect model, or I didn’t work hard enough. But hedgehogs seem to want dichotomies and trichotomies, things that are in the set or not, ideas and facts that play off each other in rigid, predictable ways. And while I’d love those things too, they haven’t presented themselves to me.

The world, instead, seems to be far better modeled by spectrums, where things are mostly different in degree and not in kind, where ideas can be balanced against each other, where multiple seemingly contradictory facts can be true, if they’re carefully defined and discussed. Instead of irreducible descriptors like “liberal”, “just”, “feminist” and “environmentalist”, switches that are either on or off, I have knobs and sliders, continuous things that can be sort of true, or mostly right, and I am so much more comfortable with that. New things I didn’t know before make me update my position, shifting knobs bit by bit, sliding along continuous functions until I’m just where I want to be, with the full knowledge that I’ll have to move again. Say what you will about it, it’s much more comforting than the worry that one new idea could bring my entire palace crashing down around me as I plummet into the chasm between discrete points.

The right color is somewhere in here….

I’m reminded of something a friend said to me once:

“If Osama bin Laden and I met each other, we would have nothing to say to each other.”

That is, hedgehog systems, totalizing systems that have something to say about everything, can’t interact with each other. They agree on some things, disagree on others, but there aren’t really ways to combine them fruitfully. The best you can hope for is non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA), where each system just stays within its own sphere and no one unbuckles their seatbelts and starts poking their sister.

(If people want to hear my model theory analogy for this, they’ll have to ask for it 🙂 ).

Plug in whatever appropriate for “religion” or “science”

That’s not enough for me. I want all the facts and values to get together and party. I want to knock down the jenga towers of ideology, and make every building block of every belief pay rent. I want to see which ones are true, or better yet, how true each one is.

I guess this is really all to say that I have become much happier and more comfortable in my beliefs since I became a rationalist and a utilitarian. I am now beholden to no specific thought structure or approach. Anything that gets the right answer goes. (Ideally speaking, of course. In reality, I am as flawed in my thinking as anyone else). And that means I’m so much more comfortable changing my mind, since I’ve linked my identity, not to a position, but to the pursuit of the right answer.

What’s especially great is that I don’t feel that I’ve lost anything. All the beliefs I had before, I can have now. Mostly, I have to ensure that they are suitably translated into empirical statements, so that each part of each belief can be examined separately. But their content remains the same. And as it happens, I don’t have any obligation to translate them that way. If the hedgehog form of atheism works for me, if I like it, if it gives me true and correct beliefs about the world, great. It’s mine for the keeping. Hell, I spend a lot of time immersed in religious thinking, and it works for me. But there’s nothing I’ve had to give up in my quest for foxishness, except what was untrue to begin with. And of course:

Some might say that rationalism and utilitarianism might themselves be the kind of Big Idea I claim to be trying to avoid. But I don’t see them that way. They are lenses through which we see things, certainly, but as I’ve just said, they don’t prevent us from seeing things in other ways. For instance, I find that utilitarianism allows me to still acknowledge that I care about fairness, beauty, and other fuzzy values in a way that other moral systems don’t. Furthermore, they don’t bind us to the narrative-based way of looking at things that has struck me as so problematic throughout this and the last post. Accuracy of belief depends on relying on more strategic, more empirical approaches, and that’s what matters to me.

I want the right answers to all the questions about the world: small ones, big ones, ethical ones. And for those, it seems, we follow the fox.

I mean, he seems to know what he’s doing.