The Christian’s Thanksgiving mistake

John MacArthur of the Washington Times has a real stumper for all of us atheists: if there is no God, then why do we feel gratitude?

Ingratitude is dishonorable by anyone’s reckoning, but to be willfully ungrateful toward the Creator is to deny an essential aspect of our own humanity. The shame of such ingratitude is inscribed on the human conscience, and even the most dogmatic atheists are not immune from the knowledge that they ought to give thanks to God. Try as they might to suppress or deny the impulse, “what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them,” according to Romans 1:19.

Indeed. How can we possibly account for the urge to be thankful, without recognizing the crucial role of this specific deity of this specific faith with this specific mythology? Because, of course, the fact that people feel gratitude has everything to do with the story of the Christian God, its creation of the world and its interactions with humans, as relayed by one particular religious text which is completely reliable. People feel stuff, and that means God. How could this ever be explained otherwise?

MacArthur continues:

One atheist has practically made a hobby of writing articles to explain why atheists feel the need to be thankful and to answer the question of whom they might thank. His best answer? He says atheists can be grateful to farmers for the food we eat, to doctors for the health we enjoy, to engineers for the advantages of modern technology, to city workers for keeping our environment clean and orderly — and so on.

Here’s the problem with that: Tipping the waitress or tipping one’s hat to sanitation workers doesn’t even come close to resolving the problem of whom Mr. Dawkins should thank when he looks at the stars, stands at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or studies the world of countless wonders his microscope reveals in a single drop of pond water.

Clearly, whether something is spiritually satisfying is unambiguous evidence of the truth of a particular religious claim. Atheism must be invalid if it can’t explain people’s feelings of awe and undirected thankfulness, because this is obviously a problem of theology and metaphysics – not one of human psychology. I’m surprised MacArthur didn’t get into more of the weak points of atheism, such as its failure to provide emotionally fulfilling answers to human wonder at childbirth, dogs, fire, and magnets. Such feelings must point to a God, because it says so in the Bible. And we know the Bible is true, because there’s obviously a God as indicated by Richard Dawkins’ feelings about canyons and Shaggy 2 Dope’s awe at rainbows.

Check and mate.

The Christian’s Thanksgiving mistake
{advertisement}

The Christian's Thanksgiving mistake

John MacArthur of the Washington Times has a real stumper for all of us atheists: if there is no God, then why do we feel gratitude?

Ingratitude is dishonorable by anyone’s reckoning, but to be willfully ungrateful toward the Creator is to deny an essential aspect of our own humanity. The shame of such ingratitude is inscribed on the human conscience, and even the most dogmatic atheists are not immune from the knowledge that they ought to give thanks to God. Try as they might to suppress or deny the impulse, “what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them,” according to Romans 1:19.

Indeed. How can we possibly account for the urge to be thankful, without recognizing the crucial role of this specific deity of this specific faith with this specific mythology? Because, of course, the fact that people feel gratitude has everything to do with the story of the Christian God, its creation of the world and its interactions with humans, as relayed by one particular religious text which is completely reliable. People feel stuff, and that means God. How could this ever be explained otherwise?

MacArthur continues:

One atheist has practically made a hobby of writing articles to explain why atheists feel the need to be thankful and to answer the question of whom they might thank. His best answer? He says atheists can be grateful to farmers for the food we eat, to doctors for the health we enjoy, to engineers for the advantages of modern technology, to city workers for keeping our environment clean and orderly — and so on.

Here’s the problem with that: Tipping the waitress or tipping one’s hat to sanitation workers doesn’t even come close to resolving the problem of whom Mr. Dawkins should thank when he looks at the stars, stands at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or studies the world of countless wonders his microscope reveals in a single drop of pond water.

Clearly, whether something is spiritually satisfying is unambiguous evidence of the truth of a particular religious claim. Atheism must be invalid if it can’t explain people’s feelings of awe and undirected thankfulness, because this is obviously a problem of theology and metaphysics – not one of human psychology. I’m surprised MacArthur didn’t get into more of the weak points of atheism, such as its failure to provide emotionally fulfilling answers to human wonder at childbirth, dogs, fire, and magnets. Such feelings must point to a God, because it says so in the Bible. And we know the Bible is true, because there’s obviously a God as indicated by Richard Dawkins’ feelings about canyons and Shaggy 2 Dope’s awe at rainbows.

Check and mate.

The Christian's Thanksgiving mistake

On giving my first speech

We just got back from the Florida Secular Rally in Tallahassee, and there’s only one way I can describe it:

Rebecca Watson, Jessica Ahlquist, and me

Awesome.

This was actually my first time attending any atheist event, and in was fantastic in so many ways. While there wasn’t a massive turnout – Aron noted a distinct lack of P.Z. – this also had the advantage of being cozy and comfortable, with a friendly atmosphere all around. Everybody knew everybody, and I got to spend all day hanging out with some of my personal atheist role models.

Dave Silverman, Greydon Square, and me

Just having a place where the values of secularism, tolerance and equality are shared by everyone present was a new experience for me, and that counts for a whole hell of a lot. My family and I were able to feel safe and respected, a rarity anywhere else in Florida.

Aron Ra, Heather, and me

Everyone was incredibly supportive, and it was fun, relaxing, and a perfect setting for another first: my first public speaking engagement.

I hadn’t done any public speaking since I was 12, when my freshman English teacher gave us the simple assignment of memorizing a poem to recite in front of the class. Naturally, I completely forgot it and cried a lot in front of everyone when it was my turn (this sort of thing happened surprisingly often at that age). Since then, public speaking hasn’t really been one of my more significant interests.

But when Mark Palmer of the Humanists of Florida Association invited me to speak at the rally – and I’m beyond grateful to him for giving a first-timer a chance – I figured it was long past time to get over it. This was a big opportunity, and I couldn’t let it pass by just because of a little fear. For better or worse, I committed myself to it and said yes.

I let various ideas for the speech drift around for a couple months until they started to coalesce, and I didn’t actually finish writing it until about a week before the big day. I had little idea of what the event would be like – where I’d be standing, how many people would be in the audience, whether I’d know anybody, how it would generally feel to be there – so I just had to imagine I was addressing a crowd of thousands that I needed to impress accordingly.

I visualized this while standing at the kitchen counter, lecturing our Halloween pumpkins. I only practiced it about 3 or 4 times, when no one else was home but our toddler, who was usually more interested in Sesame Street. Heather didn’t even get to hear it before the real thing, which made her a bit nervous about how I would do. I just figured I wouldn’t know how it would all turn out until I actually did it – but I could still do my best to prepare.

Yet after looking up various recordings of major speeches from all sorts of events, I realized that I just needed to find my own voice and let it come out. There was no big secret, no key to blowing everyone away. Everyone had their own style, and it worked for them. What they had in common was exactly what I expected: to be that good, I’d have to try to connect with the audience, speak from the heart to each and every one of them, be relaxed and natural, yet confident and controlled, but also lively… while not being overly rehearsed. And though it seemed like a tall order to pull all of that off at the same time, I recognized that it would all ultimately come down to one thing: just fucking do it.

So that’s what I did. It was nice that plenty of other speakers went before me, so that I could take it all in and get a sense of the general tone of the event and of other people’s on-stage styles. And by the time it was my turn, I didn’t have to use that trick of imagining myself as a confident and prepared person anymore – because I already was.

As I stood on the stage, the loudspeakers echoing throughout the park, I imagined myself speaking to the entire world. And it felt amazing. The crowd was wonderful, and after I was done, the other speakers assured me that I did a great job. I had done it. Public speaking may have seemed intimidating before, but once I had finished, it wasn’t anymore. It was fun!

While this is supposedly a common source of anxiety, I can say that it really wasn’t all that hard. If someone ever invites you to speak somewhere, and you’re not sure whether you should: go for it! Give it a try, and you might find out it’s actually not too bad.

I’d like to thank all of the organizers, speakers and attendees who helped to make this one of the best days ever, and a pretty life-changing experience too. All of you were great, it was wonderful to meet everyone, and I’m definitely looking forward to doing it again.

On giving my first speech

My speech at the Florida Secular Rally: "The Dogma of Gender"

Remarks as prepared for delivery:

Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you very much for having me. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Zinnia Jones. I’ve been a voice of atheism for the past four years, on YouTube and on Freethought Blogs.

I was invited here to talk about transgender issues and how they relate to the atheist movement. And really, what better topic for us to explore as skeptics and freethinkers? I’m sure most people don’t think they would have much in common with men who used to be women, and women who used to be men. But I think you’d be surprised.

Every year, more and more of us around the world are coming out and standing up for who we are. But this didn’t happen overnight. There was a time when most of us had hardly any exposure to ideas from beyond the little communities we happened to be born into. When you had doubts about who you are or what you believe, there might not have been a single person you could talk to, especially about issues that are so sensitive and personal – and in some places, unthinkable. And where would you find any information about it, when no one was willing to talk about it?

When you’re that isolated, you might start to think you’re the only one in the world who feels this way, or that there must be something wrong with you because you’ve never met anyone else like you. At most, you might see yourself represented as little more than a crude and hateful caricature in the popular imagination. And it seems impossible to believe that you could ever be true to yourself and live the life you want.

But then, slowly, the world opened up. We reached out across the globe, we got online, and we discovered who we were. We found all the knowledge we could ever need, and most importantly, we found each other. Yes, there were more of us out there, and we got together. We got organized. And we became the critical mass we needed to change our world for the better.

So, am I talking about being atheist, or being transgender? Both!

We’re all freethinkers here. Really, you have to be willing to think pretty freely just to consider the possibility that you might be another gender. All of us value reality, and the unfettered critical scrutiny of any claim, and the desire to know what’s really true, so that we can change our beliefs when the evidence demands it. This is how we’re working to dismantle the unexamined dogmas that permeate society.

And one of those is a dogma of gender, one that’s just as pervasive as any religion, and so often unquestioned that we hardly ever notice it – except when someone like me comes along and throws a wrench in the works. I’m talking about the idea that sex and gender are fixed and complete categories, that the two boxes of male and female with all of their associated features are big enough to contain everyone, and that no one can leave the box they’ve been placed in.

This is the idea that everyone with certain genes and certain anatomy must be a man or a woman. That means being expected to identify ourselves as the sex that’s dictated by our bodies, to look the way we’re “supposed” to look and act the way we’re “supposed” to act.

At first glance, this notion of gender might seem undeniable. After all, people with certain genes and body parts must be men or women – how could they be anything else? Of course, if you don’t bother looking too closely, it might seem just as obvious that the earth is flat or that nothing is evolving. But as it turns out, there’s much more to the human phenomenon of gender, and this common but naive view is empirically false.

Since most of the world only became aware of transgender people relatively recently, it’s tempting to think that this is just a kind of modern trend that’s only become possible because of advances in medical treatment. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.

From Africa to Asia to the Americas, there were numerous ancient cultures that believed there were not two genders, but three – or more! And this has persisted to the present day. There are millions of people living in South Asia who were born and raised as men, but feel more comfortable living as women, or a blend of both. Their cultures have distinct roles for them, and India, Pakistan and Nepal all legally recognize a third category of gender. Living as the gender of your choice rather than the gender of your birth is just not a new thing.

So, what do the experts have to say about this? Is it real, or just some kind of delusion that we’re a different sex? Well, every major psychological, psychiatric and medical association has agreed on one thing: you don’t fix this by denying people their identity. You don’t try to convince someone that they must be another gender. When has that ever worked? Would that work on any of you? No.

The answer is to live as who you are. That’s the cure, and it’s the only thing that actually works – because it’s what’s up here that counts, not what’s down there. We don’t consider it acceptable to try and “fix” gay people anymore. They’re not the ones who need to change. And if someone is a man or a woman, you don’t fix who they are. You fix whatever’s getting in their way.

I trust the atheist community to recognize sound science, and I trust you to stand up for everyone’s equality and civil rights. If all we stood for was mere unbelief, we wouldn’t be here right now! Wherever religious values are interfering with people’s lives, there is a place for the secular movement to set things right.

Out of every demographic, every religious group, every age group, every party and every education level, do you know who’s consistently the most supportive of legalizing gay marriage? It’s not Democrats. It’s not young people. It’s atheists! I consider the atheist movement to be one of the strongest allies of LGBT people. It’s not surprising, because we face a common enemy: religious bigotry.

The so-called “family values” groups that want government endorsement of Christianity, that want prayer in public schools, that want to take the science out of science class and the sex out of sex ed, these are the same groups that campaign against nondiscrimination laws by claiming that trans women like me are going to rape people in public restrooms. And as usual, these people are nowhere to be seen when their destruction of our civil rights fails to prevent a single violent crime.

I don’t think any of you like being seen as immoral baby-eating perverts, and neither do I. This is where atheists stand alongside LGBT people: none of us can afford to let the forces of religious ignorance prevail. And while the queer community may not be recruiting, I know atheists are!

But at the same time, it’s important to realize that just like anyone else, we’re not perfect. Greta Christina, whom I greatly admire, once said: “I feel more at home – more welcomed, more valued, more truly understood – as a queer in the atheist community than I do as an atheist in the queer community.” And while I’m sure that’s true for many people, there have often been times when I did not feel welcome, valued, or understood as a trans woman in the atheist community.

I’m a big fan of the atheist forum on Reddit.com, which has over a million readers. It may be the single largest online group of atheists. Unfortunately, I just can’t post my videos there anymore. Why? Well, I’ll let Reddit tell you in their own words. Quote:

“Is it a man or a woman?”

“I did not know she was a dude.”

“It’s a trap!”

“It is literally nauseating to look at.”

“Why are you dressed like a girl?”

“The grossest looking chick I’ve ever seen.”

“Denying your own gender is called being delusional.”

“Stop lying to yourself and admit you’re a man.”

“He will never, ever, remotely look or sound like a woman.”

Now, I realize that lots of people may just be curious or uninformed about this sort of thing. It took me a while to understand it, too. But it’s not always easy to be charitable and patient when someone calls you an “it”.

And in case you think this is limited to just a few internet trolls, consider this: One fifth of trans people have been homeless. How many of you can say that one out of five of your friends have had to live on the streets? 19% of trans people have been denied housing, and one in ten have been evicted because of who they are. Trans people face double the national unemployment rate – up to quadruple for trans people of color – and 47% have been fired, or never hired in the first place, because they’re trans. And almost one in five have been refused medical care when they needed it. All of this is because of the ignorance and prejudice against trans people that permeates our society and tells the world that it’s okay to treat us as less than fully human.

I know there are many people out there with good hearts who want to support the LGBT community – I see them doing their best every day. But they also need to understand that being trans is more than just another letter tacked on to the end. We’re people trying to go about our lives, just like everyone else.

As a nonbeliever, I want it to be acceptable to be an atheist at all levels of society, in the personal, professional and political sphere. I want this to be something that does not call into question our morality, our mental fitness, or our suitability for any occupation. And as a trans woman, I want the same thing: to be free from legal and social discrimination against who I am.

At the end of the day, being transgender is about having the determination and the courage to live as the person you really are inside, even when the world stands against us. This is how we make a fulfilled and meaningful life for ourselves, a life of love and happiness and the unbridled exuberance of our personal truth. This is something all of us can understand, and it’s what each and every one of us deserves.

Thank you very much.

My speech at the Florida Secular Rally: "The Dogma of Gender"

My speech at the Florida Secular Rally: “The Dogma of Gender”

Remarks as prepared for delivery:

Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you very much for having me. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Zinnia Jones. I’ve been a voice of atheism for the past four years, on YouTube and on Freethought Blogs.

I was invited here to talk about transgender issues and how they relate to the atheist movement. And really, what better topic for us to explore as skeptics and freethinkers? I’m sure most people don’t think they would have much in common with men who used to be women, and women who used to be men. But I think you’d be surprised.

Every year, more and more of us around the world are coming out and standing up for who we are. But this didn’t happen overnight. There was a time when most of us had hardly any exposure to ideas from beyond the little communities we happened to be born into. When you had doubts about who you are or what you believe, there might not have been a single person you could talk to, especially about issues that are so sensitive and personal – and in some places, unthinkable. And where would you find any information about it, when no one was willing to talk about it?

When you’re that isolated, you might start to think you’re the only one in the world who feels this way, or that there must be something wrong with you because you’ve never met anyone else like you. At most, you might see yourself represented as little more than a crude and hateful caricature in the popular imagination. And it seems impossible to believe that you could ever be true to yourself and live the life you want.

But then, slowly, the world opened up. We reached out across the globe, we got online, and we discovered who we were. We found all the knowledge we could ever need, and most importantly, we found each other. Yes, there were more of us out there, and we got together. We got organized. And we became the critical mass we needed to change our world for the better.

So, am I talking about being atheist, or being transgender? Both!

We’re all freethinkers here. Really, you have to be willing to think pretty freely just to consider the possibility that you might be another gender. All of us value reality, and the unfettered critical scrutiny of any claim, and the desire to know what’s really true, so that we can change our beliefs when the evidence demands it. This is how we’re working to dismantle the unexamined dogmas that permeate society.

And one of those is a dogma of gender, one that’s just as pervasive as any religion, and so often unquestioned that we hardly ever notice it – except when someone like me comes along and throws a wrench in the works. I’m talking about the idea that sex and gender are fixed and complete categories, that the two boxes of male and female with all of their associated features are big enough to contain everyone, and that no one can leave the box they’ve been placed in.

This is the idea that everyone with certain genes and certain anatomy must be a man or a woman. That means being expected to identify ourselves as the sex that’s dictated by our bodies, to look the way we’re “supposed” to look and act the way we’re “supposed” to act.

At first glance, this notion of gender might seem undeniable. After all, people with certain genes and body parts must be men or women – how could they be anything else? Of course, if you don’t bother looking too closely, it might seem just as obvious that the earth is flat or that nothing is evolving. But as it turns out, there’s much more to the human phenomenon of gender, and this common but naive view is empirically false.

Since most of the world only became aware of transgender people relatively recently, it’s tempting to think that this is just a kind of modern trend that’s only become possible because of advances in medical treatment. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.

From Africa to Asia to the Americas, there were numerous ancient cultures that believed there were not two genders, but three – or more! And this has persisted to the present day. There are millions of people living in South Asia who were born and raised as men, but feel more comfortable living as women, or a blend of both. Their cultures have distinct roles for them, and India, Pakistan and Nepal all legally recognize a third category of gender. Living as the gender of your choice rather than the gender of your birth is just not a new thing.

So, what do the experts have to say about this? Is it real, or just some kind of delusion that we’re a different sex? Well, every major psychological, psychiatric and medical association has agreed on one thing: you don’t fix this by denying people their identity. You don’t try to convince someone that they must be another gender. When has that ever worked? Would that work on any of you? No.

The answer is to live as who you are. That’s the cure, and it’s the only thing that actually works – because it’s what’s up here that counts, not what’s down there. We don’t consider it acceptable to try and “fix” gay people anymore. They’re not the ones who need to change. And if someone is a man or a woman, you don’t fix who they are. You fix whatever’s getting in their way.

I trust the atheist community to recognize sound science, and I trust you to stand up for everyone’s equality and civil rights. If all we stood for was mere unbelief, we wouldn’t be here right now! Wherever religious values are interfering with people’s lives, there is a place for the secular movement to set things right.

Out of every demographic, every religious group, every age group, every party and every education level, do you know who’s consistently the most supportive of legalizing gay marriage? It’s not Democrats. It’s not young people. It’s atheists! I consider the atheist movement to be one of the strongest allies of LGBT people. It’s not surprising, because we face a common enemy: religious bigotry.

The so-called “family values” groups that want government endorsement of Christianity, that want prayer in public schools, that want to take the science out of science class and the sex out of sex ed, these are the same groups that campaign against nondiscrimination laws by claiming that trans women like me are going to rape people in public restrooms. And as usual, these people are nowhere to be seen when their destruction of our civil rights fails to prevent a single violent crime.

I don’t think any of you like being seen as immoral baby-eating perverts, and neither do I. This is where atheists stand alongside LGBT people: none of us can afford to let the forces of religious ignorance prevail. And while the queer community may not be recruiting, I know atheists are!

But at the same time, it’s important to realize that just like anyone else, we’re not perfect. Greta Christina, whom I greatly admire, once said: “I feel more at home – more welcomed, more valued, more truly understood – as a queer in the atheist community than I do as an atheist in the queer community.” And while I’m sure that’s true for many people, there have often been times when I did not feel welcome, valued, or understood as a trans woman in the atheist community.

I’m a big fan of the atheist forum on Reddit.com, which has over a million readers. It may be the single largest online group of atheists. Unfortunately, I just can’t post my videos there anymore. Why? Well, I’ll let Reddit tell you in their own words. Quote:

“Is it a man or a woman?”

“I did not know she was a dude.”

“It’s a trap!”

“It is literally nauseating to look at.”

“Why are you dressed like a girl?”

“The grossest looking chick I’ve ever seen.”

“Denying your own gender is called being delusional.”

“Stop lying to yourself and admit you’re a man.”

“He will never, ever, remotely look or sound like a woman.”

Now, I realize that lots of people may just be curious or uninformed about this sort of thing. It took me a while to understand it, too. But it’s not always easy to be charitable and patient when someone calls you an “it”.

And in case you think this is limited to just a few internet trolls, consider this: One fifth of trans people have been homeless. How many of you can say that one out of five of your friends have had to live on the streets? 19% of trans people have been denied housing, and one in ten have been evicted because of who they are. Trans people face double the national unemployment rate – up to quadruple for trans people of color – and 47% have been fired, or never hired in the first place, because they’re trans. And almost one in five have been refused medical care when they needed it. All of this is because of the ignorance and prejudice against trans people that permeates our society and tells the world that it’s okay to treat us as less than fully human.

I know there are many people out there with good hearts who want to support the LGBT community – I see them doing their best every day. But they also need to understand that being trans is more than just another letter tacked on to the end. We’re people trying to go about our lives, just like everyone else.

As a nonbeliever, I want it to be acceptable to be an atheist at all levels of society, in the personal, professional and political sphere. I want this to be something that does not call into question our morality, our mental fitness, or our suitability for any occupation. And as a trans woman, I want the same thing: to be free from legal and social discrimination against who I am.

At the end of the day, being transgender is about having the determination and the courage to live as the person you really are inside, even when the world stands against us. This is how we make a fulfilled and meaningful life for ourselves, a life of love and happiness and the unbridled exuberance of our personal truth. This is something all of us can understand, and it’s what each and every one of us deserves.

Thank you very much.

My speech at the Florida Secular Rally: “The Dogma of Gender”

Are they really religious? Yes!

Following widespread attacks and protests at US embassies in the Middle East in reaction to a film insulting Islam, several people have linked to a story from February by Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany. In the article, titled “Are They Really Religious?”, Aswany criticizes Egyptian Muslims who follow the letter of their interpretation of Islamic law, but disregard basic human decency.

He cites the examples of a male pharmacist who refused to give an injection of insulin to an elderly diabetic woman because of “sharia”, hospital employees leaving their patients unattended for hours so they could pray at a mosque during Ramadan, and Egyptian police officers insisting on letting their beards grow as Muhammad commanded after they had raped, tortured and killed protesters during the revolution. Aswany says:

True religion requires us to defend human values: truth, justice and freedom. This is the essence of religion and it is much more important than growing beards or giving the call to prayer in the Parliament chamber.

So, are these supposed hypocrites “really religious”? Yes, they are still religious. When people insist on spending hours in prayer, or protesting any insult against someone they consider a prophet of their faith, this is obviously driven by religious beliefs, and it is religious behavior. Considering this an act of hypocrisy, or something other than religious in nature, requires redefining religion to mean an idealized “true religion” that upholds a certain set of universal moral values. And while it may sound nice to say “religion is good, and when it’s not, people are just doing it wrong”, that simply isn’t true.

If Aswany wants to denounce medical neglect, human rights violations, and “Egyptians who observe the superficial aspects of religion and pray regularly, but in their daily dealings are far from truthful and honest”, then this is all certainly worthy of criticism in its own right. But just because something is bad doesn’t mean it’s not religious. In reality, religion is not synonymous with respect, honesty, fairness, tolerance, peace, freedom, the golden rule, or anything else that people might insist is a part of “true religion”. Certainly, most sects of most religions will profess to hold most of these values, but in practice, their interpretations often leave exceptions wide enough to fly a plane through.

To claim that religion can only be responsible for good, and that anything terrible which results from it must not have been motivated by religion at all, would severely compromise our understanding of religion as a phenomenon and its role in shaping human behavior. If we recognize that people can be inspired to acts of extraordinary heroism and self-sacrifice by their beliefs about the foundation of existence and the ultimate purpose of humanity, what sense does it make to deny that these same beliefs could also drive people to commit acts of great evil which they think are actually good?

Even simply adhering to ideals of truth, justice and freedom still isn’t enough to prevent some people from completely screwing things up when they put this into action. Why is it so implausible that someone’s religious ideas about what’s inherently good could in fact be utterly atrocious? A society that values shallow displays of piety over respect for human life has absolutely been influenced by religion. Bad religious behavior by religious people doesn’t happen in spite of religion. It happens because of it, and it doesn’t stop being religious when it starts being a problem.

Equating religion with ethical conduct, and the absence of religion with immorality, implies that non-religious people do not share the basic, humane values that are attributed to this “true religion” – or that if they do, they must indeed be religious. Neither is true. People of no religion are fully capable of acting ethically, and their ability to do so is not hindered by the absence of religious faith. It doesn’t mean that they must be either secretly immoral or secretly religious. The lack of religion is not synonymous with a lack of morality, because godlessness and good behavior were never incompatible. The denial that religion could ever be responsible for any wrongdoing is not only false – it also unfairly maligns every person who doesn’t need religion to know right from wrong.

Those who put their prayers before their patients, kill protesters while defending their beards, and attack embassies in the name of Muhammad have not failed to be religious. They’ve succeeded. And just because that success is in the fields of inhumanity, ignorance, frivolity and violence doesn’t mean a lack of faith had anything to do with it.

Are they really religious? Yes!

Names have power, such as…

My partner and I have recently been reading The Lightning Thief with our 9-year-old son. One of the recurring ideas is that “names have power”, which is usually meant as “don’t say someone’s name or they’ll get pissed off”. While it initially seemed absurd that Greek gods and other creatures would somehow be okay with people talking about them as long as no one uses their actual names, it’s more likely that this is just a literary device to allow these newly renamed figures to be included as characters in their own right without triggering too many of the cultural associations that have become attached to their usual names.

But in looking into what “names have power” might mean, I found that this was actually a somewhat common idea. One person cited the Genesis myth of Adam naming every animal as an example of the act of naming symbolizing one’s power over the thing being named. This is just a specific instance of a more general kind of power: there was already an imbalance, because animals typically lack the ability to assign or comprehend names in the same way as humans. While the actual act of naming is an expression of this power, it’s not central to it. It’s a symptom, but not a cause.

Elsewhere, the American Druid Isaac Bonewits listed the “Law of Names” as one of many “Laws of Magic”. As he explained it:

Knowing the complete and true name of an object, being, or process gives one complete control over it. …knowing the complete and true name of something or someone means that you have achieved a complete understanding of its or their nature.

Ironically, this appears to disregard the common understanding of the name “name” as a convenient label for something, instead using the term to refer to an extended and comprehensive description. While fully grasping the functioning of a given entity might enable someone to exert control over it in certain ways, merely knowing its name – as most people use the word – is only a starting point.

But even as nothing more than convenient labels, names do have a variety of “powers”. The reason they have power is that identities have power, and the use of names provides a way to create, access, alter, merge, separate and destroy identities. This applies not only to people, but also to events, concepts, and movements.

For instance, a name can serve to integrate multiple identities that would otherwise be separate, such as someone’s offline identity and whatever additional identities they may have online. By associating these with the one individual behind all of them, they can be resolved to a single identity and a single name, potentially compromising that person’s privacy or safety. Conversely, omitting any identifying information, or using a very common name like “Anonymous”, can prevent the unwanted unification of one’s identities.

Putting a name to something also allows it to be discussed much more efficiently than if it had no name. Notice the ease of simply being able to say a name like “Elevator-gate” rather than having to rehash the specific nature and timeline of a certain controversy every time you talk about it. A name enables people to begin staking out the precise boundaries of something, defining it as a distinct entity.

For example, “atheism” has an obvious and well-understood definition, but in practice, it often implies a variety of stances beyond the disbelief in gods. “Humanism” and “secular humanism” can describe some of these additional beliefs, but these terms still haven’t always been linked to specific positions on ethics or political issues, and they’re even compatible with certain religious faiths. Because of this, their practical implications are often unclear.

People who identify strongly with atheism and secularism as a movement, but also share particular beliefs pertaining to equality, sexism, racism, women’s rights and LGBT issues, have long recognized that they constitute their own movement of sorts, but the lack of a distinct banner to organize under has sometimes left unclear just who they are and what exactly they stand for. Putting a name to this, like “Atheism Plus”, gives people something to affiliate themselves with and collaborate on to establish what it should mean.

Of course, this particular power of names is not a one-way process. The use of names can clarify and distinguish ideas and movements, but the ways people use and misuse them can also make their meaning much less clear. In the case of feminism, someone might use it to mean gender equality, but others may hear it as meaning an effort to subjugate, castrate or exterminate all men. This occurs because people don’t understand feminism as one distinct concept, and they have many mutually exclusive ideas of what feminism is – ideas which have become so, shall we say, “diverse”, that using the term can often result in these disconnects in communication.

Sometimes, people act as though names have more power than they actually do. They might disavow the labels of “racist” or “homophobe” or “hateful”, and then exhibit precisely the beliefs which are understood to be racist or homophobic or hateful, mistakenly believing that they can somehow alter the substance of their behavior merely by renaming it and attaching the disclaimer of “I’m not a racist”. But in using the name “racist” for something very different from how most of us use it, they’ve already disavowed that common meaning, so their defense that they’re “not a racist” ends up meaning very little. It can only be persuasive to others who commit the same error of thinking that something isn’t racist as long as you say it’s not.

People’s attitudes toward personal names also imbue them with certain powers. Because no one is capable of naming themselves at the time of their birth, their parents or guardians must provide a name for them. That name will be attached to them throughout their upbringing, and even once they reach the age of majority, most people still never change their first name. Because of this, that original name will always occupy a privileged position in their history, and the act of naming a child carries the solemnity of having to choose something that will be fitting and proper for them until death.

Changing your own name means rejecting these norms, and many people aren’t comfortable with that. When we do change our names, some people see these newly chosen names as somehow less authentic than the original name. Because they’re no longer something that we’re tied to for life, people might treat them as simply capricious, with no more significance than a change of hair color or a twenty-something’s ill-considered decision to get a tattoo.

At the same time, a chosen name takes on additional meaning in the case of transgender people. Because names are usually gendered, and gender is seen as one of the most fundamental aspects of our identity, changing your name to that of another gender is a declaration of not only who you are, but what you are. The popular notion of one’s original name being a “real name” can cause serious problems here. If your original name is the “real” one, then any name for yourself other than that will be treated as less real. And when you’ve declared yourself as the gender you now identify as, this use of “real” implies that what you are now is less real than what you used to be.

Considering how prevalent the notion of birth names as “real names” is, it’s not surprising that many people will ask trans people what their “real” names are. But they shouldn’t expect that we’ll be all that eager to tell them. Because of how people treat names, our original names have the power to invalidate who we are in the eyes of others. Rather than just ignorantly seeing us as “really a man” in the generic sense of “man”, knowing our previous names may lead them to see us as “really that one specific man”. It assists them in constructing some imagined identity for us that simply doesn’t exist, as an alternative to the person standing right in front of them. Our present may not erase our past, but our past doesn’t erase our present, either.

We’re proud of our chosen names because they represent who we are, but we can be equally secretive about our original names because they represent who we’re not. Just as our chosen names serve our own purposes, our original names can be used against us. And much like how people are willing to fight over the concepts and movements that a name stands for, they also seem to think that who we are is open to dispute. They might argue that I’m not really Rachel, I’m actually Tom. Not everyone seems to understand that while ideologies are up for debate, individuals are not.

These are the powers of names: to declare your self or deny someone their self, to affiliate or disaffiliate yourself with a movement, to make something into a thing in its own right or make it meaningless. Know them, understand them, and use them appropriately, and the powers of names can be yours.

Names have power, such as…

Thunderf00t admits to sending my private emails to Michael Payton of CFI Canada

For those who rightfully wanted further confirmation of Thunderf00t’s intrusion into the FTB private mailing list (details here), Thunderf00t himself has now helpfully provided that:

So a week or so ago a guy called Michael Payton who works for CFI Canada (Center for Inquiry) put up a tweet about finding FTB unreadable. Now it turns out ironically Michael is on FTBs side on the issue of harassment policies at conferences (well mostly), however that didn’t matter if he was going to speak ill of freethoughtblogs and this precipitated an angry torrent of twitters from at least one FTBer and another to write an entire blog post about it (promoted by PZ Myers of course), and as with all such posts on FTB he (Payton) was repeatedly branded in the comments section with pejorative terms such as misogynist and MRA (the irony being that he posted an article on skepchick ‘speaking out against hate against women‘ FACEPALM). Indeed it turned out that merely hours after this tweet, CFI Canada had been contacted with calls for his dismissal. Yes his real life job was being threatened because of one tweet about FTBs!

That was a pretty disturbing turn of events having someones job targeted so quickly after a single tweet about FTBs, and after a brief chat with Michael, and knowing that FTB were going ballistic about this on their secret backchannel with some THIRTY messages being circulated on the backchannel about his single tweet, let him know what they were saying about him (naturally no personal details were passed on). Michael did not want to know, he did not need to know that personal info.

This is some of the chatter I passed on to Michael.

Nowhere does he even attempt to justify breaking into the mailing list immediately after he was officially removed – something he did a whole month before any of us said anything about Michael Payton. At the time he did that, there were no remarks about Michael Payton for him to take umbrage at. It was just something he did for whatever inscrutable reasons he needed to convince himself that this was acceptable behavior.

Also, that “chatter” on the mailing list was my email:

Just an early warning, I’m strongly leaning towards publicly making a minor deal of this – not focusing on Payton exclusively, but just as an example of the general attitude of dismissing all of FTB despite not being familiar with hardly any of us – *unless* there’s either an actual apology to us or some kind of sufficient reason for why it would be a bad idea to draw attention to his remarks at this time, such as a relevant illness. I’m usually not one to get involved in internal disputes in the movement, but if a national leader of the SCA or American Atheists had been so openly dismissive of FTB as a whole, I imagine we wouldn’t just let that pass unnoticed. So I’d just like to know if there’s any good reason why I shouldn’t do this, even if I can’t necessarily be privy to the details of it.

Yes, I said that. And so what? I’d say it again – I did say it again – and nothing about it excuses Thunderf00t’s actions. The fact that I said such a thing is not grounds for breaching the privacy of the mailing list or forwarding this email to outside parties, because what I said was not of such a nature that the act of saying it meant immediately abandoning any expectation of privacy. Michael Payton, national executive director of CFI Canada, was making absurd overgeneralizations about Freethought Blogs on Twitter. I drew attention to this and commented on it. And before I did, I asked others if there might be more to the situation that I wasn’t aware of, in case there was any reason why posting about this would be inadvisable.

Nothing about this is even remotely out of line. But for the crime of publicly disagreeing with someone’s public statements, and talking about this with others, Thunderf00t decided that I deserved to have my private email passed along to Michael Payton himself.

So, Thunderf00t, just how far does this line of reasoning extend? Do you plan to break into everyone’s private email, just in case they might eventually plan on writing something critical about someone and you need to show this to the world? Will this then retroactively justify your unauthorized access of their information, too? Is everyone else entitled to intrude upon your privacy for the same reasons, or are you the only one who’s entitled to decide whether other people are allowed to discuss things in confidence?

At the end of the day, you committed an unambiguous and inexcusable ethical violation, and the sole defense you’ve managed to muster is that Zinnia Jones was going to say something critical of Michael Payton’s remarks. Heaven forbid. Do you know what that tells me?

It tells me you’re a pathetic, petty, flailing little whiner.

Thunderf00t admits to sending my private emails to Michael Payton of CFI Canada

Thunderf00t’s unauthorized access and leaking of the private FTB mailing list

Recently, the Freethought Blogs staff received evidence indicating that some conversations from the private mailing list for FTB bloggers had apparently been leaked to outside parties by Thunderf00t. These conversations had taken place on the list over a month after Thunderf00t had been removed from Freethought Blogs and the private mailing list. Upon examination of the mailing list logs, it was found that Thunderf00t had seemingly been able to regain access to the list immediately after he was removed. Once this was known, he was removed again and prevented from joining. After this, he allegedly repeatedly attempted to re-join the list without success.

By the time we became aware of the breach, Thunderf00t had apparently been able to access all of the dozens of conversations that had taken place on the private list over the past month, during which time his access was believed to be revoked. This material contained the private real-life identities and personal information of a number of FTB contributors, as well as various behind-the-scenes matters that could have serious adverse effects if they became public knowledge.

The mailing list has always been intended to be private. Every message posted to the list contain this notification: “All emails sent to this list are confidential and private. Revealing information contained in any email sent to the list to anyone not on the list without permission of the author is strictly prohibited.” FTB’s bloggers use the list under the assumption that its contents will not be made public or read by unwelcome parties. If you’ve ever had a conversation in the privacy of your own home which you did not want to become public knowledge, Thunderf00t’s actions are the equivalent of eavesdropping and telling others what you’ve said. And if you can understand the risks inherent to such snooping, you can understand the risks to us – as well as the sense of violation. We’ve now been deprived of control over discussions that were not meant to go beyond a limited group of chosen, trusted individuals.

People have the right to maintain their own private discussion areas, and control who is allowed access to them. This holds true regardless of our personal stance on any other subjects, such as sexual harassment, women in the skeptical movement, the handling of Thunderf00t’s brief stay at FTB, or FTB’s various contributors. The need to hold private conversations is entirely legitimate, and respecting that privacy is a ground rule. Thunderf00t appears to have violated this egregiously, and his actions simply aren’t justifiable. If disagreement on certain topics warrants breaching the privacy of those you disagree with and publicizing their confidential information, the possibility of any kind of good-faith discussion simply vanishes.

Thunderf00t’s alleged actions in this situation are inexcusable under any reasonable standard of ethical behavior, no matter what his motivations are. The limits to the damage he’s now possibly able to do to members of this community, should he attempt to do so, are unknown. Rarely have I seen such outrageous conduct by anyone on YouTube or in the atheist and skeptic community, and he was one of the last people I would have expected to do this. To say I’m disappointed would be an understatement. It’s infuriating that anyone would dare to be so disrespectful and reckless.

Thunderf00t’s unauthorized access and leaking of the private FTB mailing list