How Far Away Was Yesterday Tomorrow?

On my page ‘When Religion Dies’ I wrote about the death throws of religion. At the time it seemed like that is what we would be seeing for a while. I didn’t know then that it was the beginning of an avalanche of anti-theism. Let’s be honest, the rise of the nones is anti-theistic. In the doctrines of theism, if you are not with them you’re against them. I did not anticipate the The Clergy Project, the rise of the ‘nones’, the sheer number of blogs and youtubers, the number of anti-theist books and on and on.

Today I got a comment on this page:

Brave post.

I replied: It would have been brave a decade previous, today not so much
Not to you and me, but a lot of others still can’t speak out loud their truth about religion. But, absolutely, we’ve come a long way. Thank you.

This made me think. I replied: It is still often enough more convenient to use pseudonyms than real names, but at least people are speaking out now. When I first thought I might be atheist, I couldn’t name one other person that I knew was an atheist except for Madeline Murray O’Hare. Now I can name dozens, visit with them, drink with them, laugh with them, and talk freely with them.

I find that an inspirational statement, if you think about it. In just my lifetime, the world has changed that much. Then I got this:

Yes, with regards to what you just wrote, that is true. I was referring to people speaking out about their real feelings about religion and their religion in general, all the conditioning that says it’s a faux pas. My religious views are something I tend to keep to myself, outside of proclaiming I’m an advocate for tolerance and believe in kindness and acceptance for all. Thanks for the great conversation.

To me, this validates as necessary all the blogging and youtube videos and books and even the vitriol that we’ve witnessed in the past couple of years. So despite what might be found in the open letter included below, speak, read, write, talk, communicate. The only way to lose the right to be non-theistic is to not use that right. Clearly there are a growing number of people that would like to tell you how to use it. Not me. I won’t tell you how to. Just fucking use it!

If you can’t blog, make you a ‘God Hates Fags’ sign and cut the bottom third off of it… walk around speakers corner with that if it’s all you feel comfortable doing. Activism has no rules. Atheism has no rules. Anti-theism has no rules.

If you want to be a humanist or whatever, check their rule books. My atheism doesn’t have any!

An Open Letter to the Secular Community

April 2, 2013

The leaders of major secular organizations have issued a united call for more civility in online discussions, pledging to use their best efforts to improve the tone and substance of such discussions. The entire letter can be found on our website. Ronald A. Lindsay, president & CEO for the Center for Inquiry, and Tom Flynn, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, are signatories to the letter.

*  *  *

An Open Letter to the Secular Community

It is an amazing time to be part of the secular movement. Look at what’s happened in 2012 alone.  We held the Reason Rally, the largest event our community has ever had, which brought over 20,000 atheists, humanists, and other secular people together on the National Mall. We are growing, attracting new people, and drawing more attention than ever before.  A big part of that growth is thanks to our large and dynamic online community.  Online secular communities have helped people encounter new ideas, deepen and broaden their thinking, and even change their minds.

A Problem with Online Communication

At the same time, the fact that so much of our community is online brings with it certain challenges.  Communicating primarily online can make it difficult to recognize each other’s humanity. Online we don’t have the same vocal and physical cues to tell us what another person means by his or her comments, so it’s easier for misunderstandings to develop. The instantaneous and impersonal nature of online communication also makes it much easier for these misunderstandings to escalate, or for civil arguments to turn into bitter fights. Like many online communities, our comment and forum threads all too often become places for name calling and even threats, rather than honest dialogue based on mutual respect. Between the small but vocal number of abusive participants (often called “trolls”) who hurl threats and insults, and the overheated rhetoric of some ordinarily friendly and reasonable people, our online environment is in danger of turning toxic. Fortunately, our secular values of reason and compassion give us tools to rise above the lowest common denominator of online communication.

Our Position and Our Pledge

We, the leaders of the undersigned national secular organizations, pledge to make our best efforts toward improving the tone and substance of online discussions. The secular movement as a whole is friendly, welcoming, and committed to the use of reason and evidence as a means of resolving disagreements. We refuse to allow the deplorable conduct of a few to debase the reasonable, appropriate, and respectful conduct of the overwhelming majority of our community.

We seek to promote productive debate and discussion. We firmly believe open and candid discussion is the most reliable means of resolving differences of opinion and bringing about needed change.

Insults, slurs, expressions of hatred, and threats undermine our shared values of open and candid discussion because they move us away from an exchange of views supported with reasons.

Of course we will disagree with each other on some issues, but we can do a better job of expressing our disagreements. We can resolve to avoid mischaracterizing the positions of others, relying on rumors as the basis for our opinions, and using inappropriate tactics such as guilt by association. Instead, we can give one another the benefit of the doubt, strive to understand the whole story, and de-escalate rhetoric to foster more productive discussions. We can become better at disagreeing by treating each other like reasonable human beings.

It takes patience to educate people, but we can change how people think by having a constructive dialogue.  If that weren’t the case, we wouldn’t bother in the first place to communicate online about important issues.

The Debate over Sexism and Feminism

Before listing some specific recommendations regarding improvement of online communications, we have observations about one particular set of interrelated issues that has engaged much of the secular community in the past year, namely sexism within the secular movement, the appropriate way to interpret feminism, and the extent to which feminism, however interpreted, should influence the conduct, policies, and goals of movement organizations. This set of issues is worthy of careful consideration, but in a few areas our positions should be very clear.

The principle that women and men should have equal rights flows from our core values as a movement. Historically, there has been a close connection between traditional religion and suppression of women, with dogma and superstition providing the rationale for depriving women of fundamental rights. In promoting science and secularism, we are at the same time seeking to secure the dignity of all individuals. We seek not only civil equality for everyone, regardless of sex, but an end to discriminatory social structures and conventions – again often the legacy of our religious heritage—that limit opportunities for both women and men.

Unfortunately, the discussion of these issues has suffered from the same problems that plague online discussion in general—although arguably to a greater extent.  Some blogs and comments actually exhibit hatred, including rape threats and insults denigrating women. Hatred has no place in our movement. We unequivocally and unreservedly condemn those who resort to communicating in such a vile and despicable manner.

Our Approach

Here are some things that we plan to do to make our online secular community a place where we can exchange ideas and views instead of insults.  We hope that others may also find this approach useful.

  • Moderate blogs and forums.
    Any organization or individual engaged in blogging or administering a forum has an obligation to moderate comments. Slurs, threats, and so forth beget more of the same. Keeping our online spaces free of these elements creates a civil climate that makes it much easier for people to engage issues productively.
  • Go offline before going online: pick up the phone. 
    When you hear that an organization or member of our community is doing something that you think is wrong or bad for the community, call and talk with them, find out what they are actually doing and why they are doing it.  If you don’t have a phone number, send a private email and arrange a time to talk.  So much of the time there’s more to the story, and talking to another person on the other side of the issue can help us more fully understand the situation.  Plus, a phone call makes it easier for people who are making mistakes to change course, because they aren’t on the defensive as they would be after being called out publicly.
  • Listen more.
    We miss the nuances and differences within “the other side” once an issue becomes polarized, while continuing to see our side as filled with nuance and distinctions.  There is a tendency to stop listening and treat everyone associated with an opposing position as a monolithic group. People can be painted with views that aren’t their own just because they may disagree with some aspects of your own position. We should listen more so we can see distinctions among those with opposing views and start to move toward a more accurate understanding of the issues rather than being deadlocked into two entrenched camps.
  • Dial down the drama.
    It’s tempting to overuse inflammatory and derogatory rhetoric. It gets attention. We should be cautious about using this tactic within our community because of the long-term damage it does to relationships and morale. When critiquing people within our community, everyone should remember that our goal is to persuade our allies to see our perspective and modify their opinions. Insults don’t change opinions; they harden them.
  • Be more charitable.
    We should remember that the purpose of argument within our community is to come to shared and correct conclusions that move us forward, not to score points against the opposing side. To that end, we should apply the principle of charity, which tells us to aim our argument against the best interpretation of the opposing arguments rather than picking off weaker versions. By applying the principle of charity we will elevate the discussion so we’re actually talking about our real differences, not just engaging in a pointless exchange.
  • Trust but verify.
    Before we believe and repost something we see, we should ask ourselves about the evidence provided and the context. It’s easy for multiple people saying the same thing to look like a lot of evidence, but if their statements are all based on the same original source, they do not constitute independent verification. We should look for the original data and corroboration from independent sources before believing and spreading claims.
  • Help others along.
    We should remember that we weren’t born knowing the things we know now. To get to the reasoned conclusions that we’ve reached, we learned by reading, thinking, and talking with others. When we encounter someone espousing a view we think is based on lack of knowledge or experience, we should remember that we have all held ill-informed views. We should cultivate patience and try to educate instead of condemn.

By improving our online culture, we can make this movement a place that engages, fulfills, and welcomes a growing number and increasing diversity of secular people.

Sincerely,

David Silverman, President, American Atheists
Rebecca Hale, President, American Humanist Association
Roy Speckhardt, Executive Director, American Humanist Association
Chuck VonDerAhe, President, Atheist Alliance of America
Richard Haynes, President, Atheist Nexus
Ayanna Watson, CEO, Black Atheists of America, Inc.
Mandisa L. Thomas, President, Black Nonbelievers, Inc.
Mynga Futrell, for Brights Central, at The Brights’ Net
Amanda Metskas, Executive Director, Camp Quest
Ronald Lindsay, President and CEO, Center for Inquiry
Tom Flynn, Executive Director, The Council for Secular Humanism
Jan Meshon, President, FreeThoughtAction
Joseph McDaniel Stewart, Vice President, FreeThoughtAction
Margaret Downey, Founder and President, Freethought Society
D.J. Grothe, President, James Randi Educational Foundation
Stuart Jordan, President, Institute for Science and Human Values
Jason Torpy, President, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers
R. Elisabeth Cornwell, Executive Director, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science
Edwina Rogers, Executive Director, Secular Coalition for America
August E. Brunsman IV, Executive Director, Secular Student Alliance
Todd Stiefel, President, Stiefel Freethought Foundation
Fred Edwords, National Director, United Coalition of Reason

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  1. I agree with the approach and I think in most of the individual blogs we run, there seems to me a lot of civility and even what I can call community and friendship.
    insults are in bad taste

    • You agree with which approach? The one in the open letter?

      • yes, and i agree that we all must talk

        • I believe we can see that the talking, shouting, writing… all of it has been working all along.

  2. Death throws or death throes?

    • damn the spellchecker

      • Damn me.

      • I have a question for you.

        • sure

      • If you were stuck in solitary confinement for most of your time and had me as your sister in law…what would you want me to send you more than anything? What would your heart yearn to read? The husband’s brother is locked up and I feel compassion for him from time to time.

        • wow, that’s a tough question. I don’t know him, so I can’t guess in that direction, nor his likes etc. If he’s into rock, there are some books/autobiographies “no one gets out alive” … really tough question!

          • Oh I have all of that covered. I have sent him the entire Sookie Stackhouse series, Songs of Fire and Ice, and I ordered him the first couple of Harry Potter series today. I send him sudoku puzzles, and long interesting articles out of “The Rolling Stone”–this last one is all about the bail outs. I send him pop culture news and pictures of his kids, his family, and my child. I send him money orders and am trying to get in touch with his public defender so that I can send him a suit to wear to his trial. He shouldn’t have to appear in prison orange–yeah, he’s guilty, but he deserves a fair trial.

            You would think I really like this guy, but I distrust him so much I won’t let him anywhere near me. Yet, I feel sorry for him. And it’s for my husband too. He would never do all of this stuff, but he feels so much better because they are being done. This man found an unlikely friend in me. I can’t even write him a single word to him. But yet, I feel compassion for him. He is losing his mind a little. He has had two visitors in two years, one from his wife to ask him to please sign their divorce papers.

            I will go months and months without thinking about him and then ‘BAM’ he is on my mind. So I reach out to him in the ways that I can, before I forget about him again.

            Rambling. I know.

            But if it were you and you had me, what would you want me to send you more than anything? Now I am just curious.

            It is a hard question. I would want a book of Shakespeare’s collected works. How could anyone ever grow tired of it?

            • You might also try Mark Twain’s writings. They are quite entertaining… and enlightening in a very accessible way. Oddly, I do not find it strange that you find compassion for him in the fits and starts you describe. Good for you!

              • Mark Twain is good. I enjoy his writings. His trial is coming up in June and I know he is overwhelmed by the unknown.

                Thank you for the “Good for you’. That is as close as I have come to a “Good Girl” in a while. 😉

                • You are most welcome!

              • Jackpot:

                A transcript of the Stephen Colbert and Neil deGrasse Tyson interview. This will make a great little pick me up to put in the mail. If you read what NdT writes…he speaks in poetry. Read it and you will see what I mean. No wonder his spoken words are so engaging.

                http://transcriptvids.com/v/YXh9RQCvxmg.html

                • I did not know about that site!!!! That’s fucking awesome! Thanks.

                  • You are fucking welcome. LOL

                    I am pulling together this interview and making it more readable. It will make a good blog post when I am done (properly credited, of course), plus I can print up a copy for the brother in law. He will get a kick out of it. He is extremely smart, just out of touch with reality. Even before prison.

                    Now I have the thrift-store song going through my head. *This is fucking awesome.*

              • I am working on a project. You are going to like this. It may take a while.

                • From what I know of you, I’m certain that I will like it

                  • 🙂

                  • Good call on the Mark Twain. I am printing up a few of his essays and short stories now. I believe I will read them before I mail them, so two birds, one stone, and all that.

                    Why does it not surprise you about my “starts and fits”? Just my personality type?

                    • Few people are able to maintain a full blast emotional state. We vacillate as a matter of norm. Good days, bad days, middle days. We like to be good people but life itself often busies us to the point that it’s a drain to always be so. Fits and starts is in fact normal. It should not surprise anyone that we behave this way about many things.

                    • That makes sense. It’s more than that though. Sometimes I don’t feel like he deserves my compassion. I have walked around with a money order in my purse for three weeks before and not been able to bring myself to mail it to him because I am angry with him. That anger is mostly gone. Sometimes I can’t bring myself to think about him because…fuck him. He did this to himself. Then there are times like now when I feel very sorry for him and the hell he is going through. I want to lighten his load for him, even though I don’t like him. I stopped liking him before all of this happened. Some days I feel he deserves some compassion because he is a human being and what he is going through is harder than I could bear. When I feel this way, I try to take advantage of it and do a bunch of things, because I know the feeling will go away and I won’t feel it again for months. That’s the truth. My husband seems almost a little jealous over the attention I am paying him right now. He would deny it if I said something, but I know my husband.

                    • Watch the movie Blade Runner. At the end when Rutger Hauer dies, think about what is happening there…. it’s very relevant to your situation. Life, no matter what you feel about it day to day is important, all life. Saving any life is a virtue, no matter that it would have killed you given the chance.

                    • I’ve seen Blade Runner, but it was a long time ago. My mind forgets the details with the passing of time.

                      Sometimes I wonder if I do the things I do just to quiet the voice in my head saying, “Do something.” Otherwise, I would gladly forget about him too. I don’t know why his journey moves me to action, when others do not. I am not doing it to be good. I can’t watch his suffering without feeling something.

                    • That, that sense right there, that is what it is to be human. Our human brains are the same as other mammals but we have some extra bits, like brain 2.0 We can’t watch others suffer because we can empathize and understand what they must feel.

                      A Dom must be able to do this. To show compassion for another and do something about it is to assuage the sense of being we imagine them to have. It becomes real to us when we imagine how their situation must be. We take what we know of them and model it in the simulation of the universe that we are running in our own heads and we feel what we imagine they feel. We say “If I was that person, I’d feel this way or that way” and this brings us to understand and empathize. Such kindnesses are never forgotten… they may be ignored or blatantly not accepted, but when you show such compassionate kindness to someone in need, they won’t ever forget it… even if they never return it. Imagine you were desperate and someone showed you a kindness… would you forget it? I thought not. This is the meaning, if there is to be one, of life. No adventure, no great building, no great work of art, no creation of humankind is more useful, more powerful, or more potent than a simple gesture of kindness to one in need.

                      It is not important that we answer all the calls of help that we can know of… only that we answer the ones we can. Like a chain reaction (pay it forward) it will spread and we all are better for it. In this way, one kind word can change the world. I mean all of it not just near you. Can… not will. One kind act can change a life. One kind thing… it’s all it takes. It is not in us to do so 100% of the time. That you find it in you in fits and starts is normal and shows a goodness about you, that you want to make some part of your world better, that you want to alleviate some suffering in the world… even for those that you do not like.

                    • People have been generous to me in times of desperation. They have reached out to me and held my hand through terrible pain, physical and emotional. A young, black nurse come to mind who was walking past my room when I was in the hospital. I was in literally screaming pain waiting for the morphine to kick in and she held my hand through it, without a word exchanged between us. No, you don’t forget such people and even the smallest of gestures.

                      I don’t expect anything back in return with this man who I am helping. Some would argue that I am not doing the right thing…showing him the compassion that I do. My family would not approve of it. I don’t really tell anyone about it. I don’t want him to repay me in any way, even if he could. I have no desire to bind myself to him. My part, my intention behind the gesture is finished as soon as I have completed the act–mailed off whatever. I am not sure if I am making sense. I war with myself over helping him, but that voice in my head needs quieting every few months. So I listen to it.

                      My main problem with Christians is very few people know what it is to be a “Christian”. To show compassion to people, even the ones you don’t like, even the ones who have hurt you personally and the people you love. That is indeed a test of oneself. Yes, I am a better person for helping someone who is suffering so much, but I am not doing it for the brownie points. It’s just where my life is taking me. It is. And so, I am.

                      I am not sure if you said this are not, but somewhere I think I gleaned this from your writings. God does not answer prayers, people do.

                      Rambling again.

                      I am off to the best girlfriend’s house for a visit. My house is clean and my chores are done. The husband is studying and I am due some laughs. Enjoy the day.

                    • You are right, god does not answer prayers, people do. That voice in your head is human-ess. It is not being christian, it is being human. Christians just like to pretend that. They think their god tells them to be human and that makes them special… all it does is make them tolerably human. They mostly are not much good at it.

                    • I like our talks.

                    • I enjoy them too

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