Category Archives: skeptic

Book Review: Jen Hancock’s Humanist Approach to Happiness

(x-posted from SheThought)

Jennifer Hancock, from her website

Jen Hancock was kind enough to reach out to the SheThought writers and offered me a chance to read and review her book, The Humanist Approach to Happiness: Practical Wisdom. The book is aimed at teens and young adults as a way to teach ethics, critical thinking skills and decision-making to young people. If you’re more interested in the book than anything I have to say, just scroll to the end and there’s more information on the special deal she’s offering SheThought readers.

This is perfect for me because, as someone who automatically hates everything and thinks grown-ups are stupid, I am exactly the right audience for a book aimed at teenagers.

So I suppose that’s a good place to start. I didn’t totally hate it, but I didn’t love it either. Some parts of it were really good, and some parts really rankled. It is written in an easy to understand way with plenty of examples and metaphors that are appropriate to a younger readership. The writer clearly has a very keen memory of her teenage days and isn’t afraid to mine them for engaging examples.

One of my bigger problems with the book came from formatting choices. There seemed to be some errors with the margins, which is fairly minor, but the author also made the decision to pepper the book with quotations from famous speakers. Now, I’m not against quotations, but giant quotations in between connected paragraphs makes me feel a little bit off kilter. When the quotes intrude, I feel the need either to read the quote and then re-figure out what I was reading or to skip the quote entirely.

Sort of like how you’re engaging with this picture right now

There’s a lot of great stuff, however, on what makes people “good” people, and what makes people not so good. Her three required traits are compassion, ethics, and responsibility, and these seem pretty accurate to me. She’s also happy to list bad people as well, people who generally don’t follow those three guidelines. She’s neither pro or anti-religion, at least not explicitly, and simply says that people can be good or bad regardless of faith and the only real caveat she gives in the book is that if you or someone you know is grieving, don’t assume your faith is the way they want to deal with grief. And be skeptical about supernatural claims, because that stuff is ridiculous and can get you killed!

My favorite part is where she insists that everyone is a dork. Because we all are dorks, and the sooner we embrace it, the sooner we can move beyond lame attempts at being cool. She also thinks we should be more eager to engage in lifelong learning and learning from our elders. Amen to that. We are all dorks who should hang out with old dorks.

And then she starts wandering a bit away from things I agree with into territory I feel a little confused about. She insists that people should aim for simplicity generally, including in their diet. Now, I’m all for simple tastes and simple lifestyles, but I am always skeptical about diet claims of any kind. Insisting on food simplicity strikes me as faddish and there are no references that make it seem like she’s making scientific claims, just personal ones. Why is a drink with chemicals worse than a drink with no chemicals? Am I really to believe that natural means healthy? I mean, arsenic is natural.

And she goes on to really discourage people from indulging in “sinful” pleasures (her quotes). Now, I appreciate that a book aimed at a young audience isn’t going to say go try drugs and sex and rock and roll because they’re interesting and part of the human experience… except that’s exactly what I think it should say. This is clearly just a difference of opinion between the author and myself, but I feel a little confused as to how her view is the only one justified by humanism, though perhaps it isn’t trying to claim to be the only point-of-view.

And then there’s sex. The author and I are clearly coming from totally different worlds on this one. Her advice to play the field while dating and wait for sex are things that I don’t personally find compelling, but I don’t think it’s necessarily bad advice. But when she says things like women who hate their dads transfer that hate to all men; and people who dated can’t really be friends and shouldn’t contact one another for at least a year; and, no matter what they say, women who say they’re OK with a solely sexual relationship are really just looking for an emotional relationship, whether they know it or not; and people who watch porn lose sense of reality and it’s a catalyst for bizarre violent activity and it’s addictive… when she says things like that, it is all I can do not to punch the screen. Where are the citations? Why on earth does she think this stuff?

The book ends, however, on a high note, in a sense, about grieving. This is the best part of the book and speaks from personal experience and love. I’ve never seen much literature on the humanist perspective on grief, and this handles it gracefully.

So, there are good and bad bits and, if you rip out the section on relationships and sex, I think the book is a great read for young adults. I think few adult readers would find it challenging, but there are still some enlightening moments to it.

More information from the author:
Even though the book is explicitly Humanist, I’m finding that moms of different stripes and interestingly enough, religious folk who work with teens, are interested in the book.  My book is currently in the curricula for the Royal Military College of Canada to teach cadets critical thinking and decision-making skills. It’s also going to be in the new curricula for the UUA for youth education in the areas of critical thinking and character development.  Oh, and it’s enjoying its third month atop the Kindle best seller lists for Parenting/Morals&Responsibility and Parenting/Teens.

For a copy of the book go to: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/22621  20% off both the ebook and the paperback formats, Coupon code: UT36F – Price will be $4.80 instead of $6.00 – this coupon expires Oct 1st 2012.

For the paperback go to: https://www.createspace.com/3463716 and use the discount code: 2SV7A43M  20% off the list of $12.98 – so the price will be $10.38

The book is also available at whatever online book retailer you might prefer to use.

PS – I’ve also got a new little e-book out – Jen Hancock’s Handy Humanism Handbook – I’m giving that away free to people who sign up for my email list and the Humanist of Florida Association are giving it away free to anyone who donates to them or becomes a member.

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Do Be a Dick (sometimes): Emotions and Skeptics

This is the paper I wrote as a reference to what I was going to talk about at Dragon*Con, which was itself an expansion on the paper I submitted to TAM9.  What I did at D*C was longer, more conversational, and a bit sillier than this paper is, but it will give you the basic thrust of what I talked about.

My background is in film and media and I’m currently getting my PhD in Mass Communications. I’ve worked in Hollywood, I’ve worked in South Carolina, and other horrible places in between. Film is a powerful medium because it speaks not only in images but also in emotions, and emotions are what I want to talk about today.

When I think about films that I saw long ago, I rarely remember the plots or the character names, though I often remember the actors. What I mostly remember are the moments of extreme emotion in the film. I remember the shower scene in Schindler’s List, the reuniting of the sisters in The Color Purple, the death of Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic, the pain and horror of Sara when she is reunited with her father and he does not recognize her in A Little Princess. We are drawn into movies for many reasons, but they tend to stick with us because of their emotional power.

Movies use a lot of tricks to get this to happen, they use music and lighting, they use editing and writing, they use actors that are famous and that we’re already emotionally attached to, and they use the close-up. Think about how close you have to be to someone to see them as close as you see someone in a close-up. Most people only ever see their family and their lovers that close. The art of false intimacy! I say this merely as a preamble, to show you how easily one can get caught in emotions and to show that emotional manipulation is something that any filmmaker, and furthermore anyone who is trying to engage an audience, should be using.

Last year at TAM, Phil Plait (who I love!) gave a talk about how to successfully argue, and his broad theme was Don’t Be A Dick. As a smart ass, I took this rather personally — I’ve mostly moved on, but I’ve spent the year trying to distill why exactly it got under my skin and it is this: nice doesn’t always work and mean is an effective tool when wielded correctly. Being a dick triggers an emotional response, but not always the one you’re looking for, it is important to use emotion with intent.

What Phil Plait was absolutely right about was this: the skeptic movement doesn’t always take emotion into account when it argues, and it should. This doesn’t necessarily mean being a dick, of course, one can very easily use emotion without invoking dickitude, but being a dick is a tool (lol) in an arsenal of emotional weapons. This doesn’t mean it’s the right tool for every job, in many circumstances being a dick is not going to get the reaction you’re looking for, but that doesn’t mean it never will.

There are two things I want to cover today: why dickishness can work and why emotions are important. These things are interrelated – insults are almost always emotional, and not necessarily negative. An insult brings about different emotional responses in the insultee, the audience, and the insulter themselves. Emotions are not easy and are less scientifically certain than logic, but they are essential to making good arguments.

My Favorite Slide Ever

To bring in someone else’s opinion on the issue, I’ll refer to Aristotle. There are three essential parts of any rhetoric: logos, ethos, and pathos – logic, ethics or integrity, and emotions. I think skeptics really have the first one covered; logic will never be our weak link. Ethos we struggle a little bit more with, not because we’re not ethical, but because oftentimes we are perceived as unethical, particularly the more atheistic your arguments are. This is slowly changing, the more we get out there and spread the message the more people realize we aren’t eating babies. Emotional arguments are an important way to rehabilitate the image of someone, though they are also easily used to undermine someone’s character.

We often see this in ad hominem attacks, these attacks undermine credibility without actually talking about what someone is arguing. To most humanists, and I would guess to most people in the audience, the ad hominem is generally immoral because personal traits shouldn’t be relevant to an argument. And, in terms of being strictly logical, that’s true.

Except, that’s not always emotionally true. When Ted Haggard is railing about the immorality of gay sex and is then engaging in it, that sort of hypocrisy should be exposed. This is a form of ad hominem tu quoque (you also), it remains logically fallacious, just because Ted Haggard had gay sex doesn’t mean his argument that gay sex is bad is incorrect, it just means he’s a hypocrite. But most people care if someone’s a hypocrite a lot more than they care about logic.

This is at least partially why there’s been a large push in the movement towards charity and embracing ideas beyond the traditional scope of skepticism. It’s almost an attempt to rehabilitate the ethos of the skeptics. The Foundation Beyond Belief, for example, does do a lot of good for the world, but it also promotes an image that gives atheists more credibility. In the same vein, there’s also a push from many in the movement, such as Jamila Bey, Greta Christina, Debbie Goddard, and others, to approach more meaningful topics that maybe fall outside the “traditional” range of skeptic issues. How can we develop credibility among people who are not in any way served by us? Why don’t we address issues that are important to people who aren’t a part of the movement, like drug laws and the insane number of black men in prison? Like abstinence only education and the wage gap? I admit that I am very strongly in favor of this, and am therefore biased.

Finally, there is pathos, the emotional side of things. Obviously, all three, logos, ethos, and pathos, are interrelated, but when you focus exclusively on logic you’re still impacting ethos and pathos, you’re just not doing it intentionally. It’s easy to understand how skeptics drop the pathos part of arguments, skepticism is about rationality after all, but my main argument here is that it’s completely irrational not to take emotion into account. Have facts, by all means, have all of them you can find, be smarter than the other guy (or gal), but use emotion to your advantage.

The trouble is that people are not rational. It’s the reason we have trouble winning lawsuits, and it’s the reason that Separation of Church and State groups like the SCA are moving away from Establishment Clause cases, which argue abstract philosophical ideas, towards equal rights cases, which are about people being mistreated. You have to take into account how people already feel AND get people to respond to your arguments emotionally.

Using emotion doesn’t mean lying, it means rationally taking into account the fact that humans don’t respond solely to logic. That’s what makes us human, and we should be glad of it, not try to suppress it. And if we know it’s there, we’re foolish not to take advantage of it, because our opponents are already masters of emotion and therefore have a huge advantage. With facts you have what’s wrong, but with emotion you have why someone should care.

One of the greatest dicks of all time, Cicero, was the king of rhetoric. Cicero is an interesting case study, despite his Machiavellian emphasis on how pliant people are when you’ve appealed to their emotions (or perhaps we should say Machiavelli was Ciceronian?), he is also recognized as one of the fathers of the humanist movement. Civic humanism, the devotion to a public life of trying to make the world a better place for the people who have to live in it, is modeled almost entirely on Cicero’s own dedication to education and ethical politics. Cicero believed that man is set apart by reason and speech, which allows for the formation of society.

Cicero recognized an important distinction that we should recognize as well, when you’re arguing in public, you’re not simply arguing with a person, you’re putting on a display for an audience. This is true regardless of the medium. Obviously I am giving a display to an audience here (Ed. Note: pretend you’re at Dragon*Con), but I could easily insult someone in the front row and make you the audience hearing my insults. I could also insult you and make you both the insultee and audience. This is true of debates that go on onstage, of conversations you see on television shows like Bill O’Reilly or The Daily Show. This appeal to the audience is true even when things are recorded without an audience for broadcast, and true for any argument in any public space.

This is true when arguing on YouTube, or on a blog, or on an online forum. An argument in these places isn’t just meant for one person, though it may be aimed primarily at them, it is aimed also at convincing other readers of your point. It is perfectly possible to make a mean argument that the supposed target will completely ignore but that will convince others that you are right.

Among the many speeches Cicero gave, many were devoted to tearing apart the character of Mark Antony. These speeches were not meant for Antony, they were meant for the audience – the senate and the public, who proceeded to consolidate their support for Cicero. Insult worked here to speak truth to power, but primarily to weaken support of the power in question.

Insults are also entertaining, how else explain the popularity of House MD and Yo Mamma jokes? People enjoy insults as comedy, as clever, as signs of intellectual superiority. An insulter is not necessarily a bad guy – insensitive perhaps, but often the bringer of truth in an entertaining way. When House calls someone a liar, he does so with the kind of flourish that makes you like him – we like him because he’s confident (to the point of delusion, perhaps) and because he is a dick. He is not afraid to speak the truth, preferably in the form of a putdown, and preferably against the prevailing “good manners” of the day. To someone’s insistence on humility, he says:

Humility is an important quality. Especially if you’re wrong a lot… Of course, when you’re right, self-doubt doesn’t help anybody, does it?” (#109)

The entertainment purpose here shouldn’t be underestimated. If you think of the rise in attention to atheists and the massive rise in attendance to skeptic or atheist conferences in the past few years, you can attribute a lot of that to the increase in how entertaining atheists are. To get media exposure one doesn’t need to be right, unfortunately, they just need to be interesting – viewers equal dollars, and almost all of the media has a bias towards whatever makes them more money. Insults are entertaining, and therefore get coverage. And coverage means awareness, and awareness means people can’t pretend we don’t exist – whether they agree with us or not.

I know there’s been a big hullabaloo over the tone atheists take on billboards and so forth, but how much coverage has that earned atheists in the news?

Thomas Conley’s “Toward a Rhetoric of Insult” has brilliant insight and analysis on the cultural impact and importance of insults. One of his most interesting insights is that for an insult to work, the people in the audience have to share the same worldview and values as the insulter – an insult is inherently stating that the speaker is morally or otherwise superior and that anyone in the room, including the insultee, should hold to the same moral standards that the insulter is referencing.

For example, if HL Mencken, insulter extraordinaire, says of Warren G. Harding:

He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.

He is appealing to the idea that everyone thinks that bad English, wet sponges, and barking dogs in the middle of the night are bad things indeed. Even Harding himself would have to agree.

Insults can also be powerful motivators, think of coaches and drill sergeants, or to take a less warlike example, think of sororities and fraternities, which put people through hazing before joining. This creates, strangely, a very tight bond between the insulters and insultees.

To quote Thomas Conley directly:

[O]ne side of insult calls for shared values and beliefs, rests on a kind of intimacy between insulter and the one being insulted, and can be a way of reinforcing social bonds, not just asserting alienation. Insults can be viewed as indirect celebrations of public virtue and as an implicit recognition of the ubiquity of hierarchy. And insults can be a method of motivating people to do their best-what, I suppose, we might call “the noble insult,” like the “noble lie” in Plato or Quintilian. Finally, insults can be a powerful mode of truth-telling.

There is, perhaps, a huge gap between a troll on a website and Christopher Hitchens, though I suspect many Christianists would accuse Hitchens of trolling them. But the spectrum of dicks doesn’t mean that you either have to be Hitchens or you can’t be a dick, it means that context matters (of course!) and that you should at the very least be aware of what you’re trying to accomplish through the way you’re speaking. This is the art of rhetoric generally, but there is a place for being a dick within that art, precisely because of the skillful way in which dickishness can elicit emotional responses.

So, we’re back to the broader point, emotions good! Use them!

People respond to personal stories, people respond to emotional appeals, and if that doesn’t feel right to you, all you have to do is look at Prop 8. Dave Fleischer did an in-depth case study of the Prop 8 campaign, and what follows is an analysis of the importance of emotion in the arguments, and how the gay marriage side failed to emotionally connect with voters.

The gay movement and the atheist and skeptic movement have a lot in common. Like LGBT, atheists and skeptics are usually an invisible minority in the United States. We face a culture that is subtly and not so subtly biased against us, and we face the fact that people are always shoving their woo down our throats. Like LGBT, no one has to know we’re atheist, we can remain “in the closet”. And the more we do so, the more the untruths and false stereotypes about us are allowed to persist. I say this not to encourage people to out themselves, though they should, but because this is the emotional groundwork laid before we even get to the table. It’s an uphill battle, but we already know what’s there.


For those who don’t follow gay rights issues, I’ll give a brief background of Prop 8. In 2000, a ballot initiative called Prop 22 easily won the popular vote and was created as a law, which for these purposes is less effective than a constitutional amendment. In 2004, San Francisco began offering marriage licenses to same-sex couples, which led to a long series of court battles and in 2008 the California Supreme Court said that same-sex couples had the same right to marriage as heterosexual couples, making Prop 22 invalid. Gay marriage in California began in June 2008, but on the ballot that following November was a constitutional amendment that would take that right away.

Prop 8 was a constitutional amendment for the California Constitution that said that marriage was only between a man and a woman. California, unlike the US as a whole, only requires a simple majority to amend its constitution. The campaign was the most expensive campaign in the history of propositions, and second only to the Presidential election in 2008. The gay rights side failed, and the amendment was passed. 18,000 gay couples got married in the window between the overturning of Prop 22 and the enforcement of Prop 8.

Yes = Protect Kids, No = Something about fairness?

The No on 8 campaign was, in many ways, a horrible mess for the LGBT crowd. Not because it wasn’t well-funded, even though their opposition had a seemingly endless supply of money courtesy the Mormon Church, No on 8 was outspending the anti-gay marriage crowd 2:1, even 4:1 in the final week of the campaign. Their problem was that they let the Yes on 8ers have the most emotional capital in the game. For weeks, Yes on 8 had the major advantage of having better emotional messages without facing effective counterarguments.

The shocking thing is that Yes on 8 didn’t even come up with a SINGLE emotional appeal that hadn’t been used thousands of times before this campaign, the gay rights crowd could have easily guessed what they were going to do ahead of time, and most certainly should not have been surprised when those same Anita Bryant tactics were used once again. There had been many previous campaigns headed by NOM, the Catholic Church, and the Mormons against gay marriage in the decade preceding Prop 8, and the anti-rights crowd used the same tactics they always had.

No on 8 had resources, but their ads weren’t effective because they didn’t use pathos. One of their biggest ads was called Conversation and it was two women looking at photos saying that they weren’t too fond of gays, but taking away “fundamental rights” seemed sort of wrong.

This ad was so ineffective, it actually got pulled early. Why? Because it was boring. And because it made no arguments to support its assertion that gay marriage was a fundamental right. There was no emotional appeal, just a moral appeal to something people weren’t sure was moral or not.

The most effective ads the Yes on 8ers used played on the fear of the voters, and most particularly on the fear of parents. In fact, their most effective ad was called Princes, and it was a child coming home from school telling her mother about how she learned at school that a prince could marry another prince, and she could marry a princess. Then a man says “Think it couldn’t happen here? It already is.”

This played on the subtle message that gay marriage was going to pervert childhood in some way. That’s all they had to do, was just imply it. There’s a similar bias against atheists — all someone has to do is hint at it for it to be negative. And the worst part is that these horrible stereotypes just aren’t true. This ad pulled the support of some 500,000 parents who had been on the No on 8 side — half a million parents switched their votes.  Had they voted the other way, No on 8 would have won.

The ad that most changed public opinion back towards LGBT equal rights came too late in the campaign, and it was just a direct rebuttal to the Princes ad — it unfortunately came out weeks later because the No campaign had been unprepared, but it did come out.

The numbers show that the ad was effective, so even if someone catches you unprepared with an emotional message, you can still reply. It’s not nearly as effective as defining the emotional stakes of the discussion yourself, but it’s so easy to get out on front on these issues when you know that they will be coming.

What this means for skepticism and atheism is this: If you were promoting skepticism on a billboard, which would be the stronger message: “Homeopathy is minuscule amounts of questionably useful substances diluted beyond a trace” or “Homeopathy kills, it’s not medicine, it’s fraud”.

We’ve even got the clever “Homeopathy, there’s nothing in it” stickers, right?  I love these!  They’re delightfully nerdy, and if you’re a big fan of Moles then you’ll love it.  But it doesn’t resonate with most people and why should it? It’s just not that important in the scheme of things, unless you point out that it causes actual harm, not just that it violates all the known laws of physics.

If we protest saying “Under God” in the pledge, no one cares. It just feels petty to people, even though we’re right. If we talk about a kid being bullied by teachers for not saying it, on the other hand, people are more likely to care. Think the “It Gets Better Campaign.” If you can point to harm, particularly to children, that works. Scientologists, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jenny McCarthy and her anti-vaxxers all deny potentially life-saving medical treatments to children. Talk about perfect targets for insults.

Psychics and Faith Healers, two categories of charlatans I can’t tell apart, have had some of this leveraged at them. James Randi has effectively used the emotion of humor to reveal just how pathetic people like Uri Geller are, teaching through mockery — which is kind of dickish, just to bring this full circle. Earlier this year, atheist and mentalist Derren Brown released a special about faith healing, humorously skewering these people as frauds, grifters and scoundrels (and not the fun Han Solo type).

He exposed their tricks – the facts of the case, if you will – but he focused on emotion as well. These healers aren’t just bilking money from little old ladies, they’re bankrupting them. They’re killing them and blaming their illness on lack of faith. They’re not just tricksters, they’re not just giving false hope, it’s much worse than that.

We need more of these exposures. We need more personal stories of people who have been taken advantage of and who have been hurt by pseudoscience and irrational beliefs. We need to be getting more involved in the community, to be doing public acts of charity, to be engaging with issues that matter to people who aren’t skeptics, who aren’t atheists.  We need to be thinking about how to use emotion, we need to recognize that we’re using it whether we intend to or not, and we need to recognize that there are different tactics and, most importantly, room for people who have different tactics.

It’s hearts and minds, right? We’ve got the facts to win their minds, now let’s not be afraid to use emotional rhetoric to win their hearts as well.

Going Back to School & Dragon*Con: I’m Speaking Monday at 1PM

And you can watch!  Here.

I’ve had a craaaaazy couple of weeks here.

The bizarre tale.

I’ve been thinking about going back to school for a while – I browsed through different PhDs online for film or creative writing and I looked at law school, but the first two seemed impractical and as I didn’t think I could get a full ride to Stanford, the last one didn’t seem to have a lot of appeal. A month ago I saw a program at USC (South Carolina) in Mass Communications, which is right in line with my interests and previous degrees, so I applied for the spring semester of 2012, being the next semester available.

I got a phone call on the Tuesday before the Thursday that class started, asking me why I applied for the Spring Semester (because it was the next one to apply to!) and, if they could get me funding, would I be at all interested in coming this fall. I said, “Sure, if you get me funding,” as I am not made of money.  So then I talked to him on Thursday, which was the first day of classes for the semester, and he asked me to come down and talk to everyone. So I spent 2 hours interviewing, meeting, being grilled on stats — all at the end of the first day of classes.

I got offered a graduate research assistantship and had about 6 hours to decide if I could do it or not.  And so I am a future doctor and my life exploded into massive amounts of chaos that are slowly pulling themselves back into vague order.

I had about 247 administrative type things to do for the University, had to figure out how to do two weeks notice at my job and go to school at the same time, and prepare for speaking at Dragon*Con, and catch up on all the school stuff I had missed.

Those Darn Young Atheist Messing Up the Skeptic Movement

I want to like Barbara Drescher’s blog, and I really try, because she’s really smart and usually makes solid arguments and we’re FB friends. She is generally quite knowledgeable and I agree with her a fair amount — perhaps my difficulty is a generational thing, because where I disagree with her, it always feels like a personal attack from her. Her recent series of posts really rankled, despite the fact that I don’t feel like I am accurately described by her general complaints of the new kids in the movement. I really tried to see her point of view, and I just cannot, and reading them just makes me feel irritated and insulted.

My trouble with Drescher is, and always has been, her constant dismissal of anyone who doesn’t have credentials that live up to her personal standards. Anyone who is too young, anyone who doesn’t have the right degree, or a high enough degree, or enough time devoted to the movement, or hasn’t read enough of the “right” books doesn’t have the right to be a part of the movement. It’s academic elitism at its very worst, and if her approach to skepticism was the only one, we’d lose a lot of voices, and with them a lot of people who are interested in the movement.

It’s as though she wants to be the self-appointed arbiter of who should and who shouldn’t be allowed to speak. And, admittedly, wouldn’t we all like to have that power? Perhaps the “old guard” thinks of skepticism as their baby, so when it changes or has an influx of numbers, that change is scary, regardless of whether it is positive or negative. Growth is healthy for a movement, but it also means that it changes in ways that are unpredictable and difficult to navigate — perhaps we’re in second or third wave skepticism.

And this is where it seems the “old guard” should step in and be mentors for new members, to reach out to them, to include them — to educate them about the movement in a way that doesn’t seem to say “I’m better than you, you should shut up.” Hey! Tone! Maybe she thinks being elitist will make people want to be part of the elite too? That sort of makes sense in my mind. Or maybe she’s trying to get people to stop contributing without getting a PhD in Skeptology? I’m not sure what her goal is. And perhaps that is intentional, I am not part of her “we”, I am part of the influx of new people from the atheist crowd who are taking over skepticism for our own nefarious purposes.

She seems to operate under a wish for the movement to remain small, both in number of contributors and in size of impact. Does she dislike the idea of a big movement? I don’t understand it at all. I can’t fathom why someone would want to denigrate the young contributors who are the people most likely to ensure the future promotion of skepticism.

And I literally cannot comprehend, in a way that makes me feel like I must be missing something, this tendency for the “old guard” to want to keep skepticism away from subjects that impact people’s daily lives in massively important ways. I just don’t understand intentionally limiting the scope when doing so keeps skepticism from being relevant to most people.

Maybe this is the crux of the issue. Skepticism to me is an approach to improving the world, a thought process that can be applied to everything, and that should be applied to much more of what happens around us every day. I suspect that Drescher feels the same way, it’s just that we differ on what we think is appropriate to skept.

I am angry because an influx of people who have stumbled upon or been recruited to the work of Skepticism are making it much more difficult. We’re moving backwards. This is happening, in part, because some of these rookies insist that their understanding of that work is as good or better than the understanding of people who have studied and worked in the field for years. Many have little or no education in the basics of science or the scientific process. Some claim to follow the teachings of people whose works they have never read. Some believe that the ‘old guard’ have more to learn from them than the other way around. These people voice their opinions on blogs and in talks, discussing topics about which they consider themselves competent after reading a couple of blog posts, listening to a podcast, considering their own limited experiences, or MAYBE reading a book or two on the topic.

What’s worse, they argue about details with little or no understanding of even the big picture. They believe that their understanding is complete and, therefore, requires no study, no thought beyond the surface features, and certainly not time or mentoring.

And I skept at her claims. I mean, I believe she’s angry, I just don’t believe that we’re moving backwards, that rookies are a bad thing, or that they’re as uneducated as she claims, nor that they are any more convinced of being right than anyone else in the movement — there are a lot of hardheaded people in the movement, including just about everyone in the “old guard”. I also think that the old guard could always learn something from the new kids, because they have a different perspective, and shutting yourself off to that makes you irrelevant quickly. Why is it that people forget what it is like to be young, to be passionate, to want to effect change? Why do they constantly try to bridle that with insults instead of trying to help?  I am really bothered by the dismissal of young people, as though they are not fully-formed people who deserve respect and consideration.

TAM Sunday: I give a presentation to a zillion people

I got up early to get ready to see the papers, and to make sure I was there to watch everyone else’s papers because they usually aren’t crowded.  TAMmers leave in droves on Sunday before the event is over and the papers were really poorly advertised this year.  There was no program, there was no schedule that anyone had access to, our names weren’t printed anywhere, certainly our subjects weren’t printed anywhere.  It was poorly done, I have to say — we’re not headliners, but we are people who still had to pay despite the fact that we’re talking.  The least they could have done is put our names somewhere so people would know what they were listening to.

Anyway, I went to the papers.  I was fairly nervous, but it was OK, I was the last to go, so I had to sit through 6 other papers before it was my turn and, unfortunately, the paper before me ate into my time a little, so I had to shorten mine up on the fly.  Which was also fine, because I could see anything thanks to the lights reflecting off of my glasses, so I couldn’t really read my notes anyway.

It went over very well.  The presentation was about the importance of using emotion and recognizing emotion in discussions, using the failure of the LGBT side in the Prop 8 campaign as an example of how emotional messanging works.  There’s a huge tone debate in the movement at the moment, for those of you who don’t remember DBAD, because some people think that other people are too mean or confrontational.  The point of my speech was to say that emotional content is one of our most useful tools, and being a dick creates an emotional response.  It’s a useful tool in the tool box.  But most importantly, just because the movement is about logic and rationality that doesn’t mean that ignoring emotion is the right way to go about convincing others — ignoring human emotion is irrational.  Including within the movement — skeptics are not immune from being human, we should start taking that into account better when we argue.

I got a large applause when I was done, and after I left the stage a little crowd of people came over to thank me or talk with me about the issues.  It was very cool.  I was expecting some backlash — perhaps from being on the internet for too long — I thought some people would tell me that emotions have no place in rational debates or that they didn’t appreciate my assumption that everyone in the room was pro-gay rights, but the responses were great.

I was too keyed up to sit through the next presentation, especially as the World Cup Final was about to take place, so I just went into the hallway and talked to people who came up to me to say thanks about my presentation.  To pat myself on the back a little, I’m going to write some of the Twitter responses:

kefox: Great talk this morning on communicating w/emotion. Our side is smarter & really ought to be the Jedi masters of this.

Tasutari: Ashley could easily have given a full talk – good slides, good content, well presented.  Plus, there was a Joss Whedon quote.

charlesj: Ashley tells us what we need to hear, continuing from Tavris’ talk yesterday

jennifurret: Ashley nailed it on using emotions when arguing skepticism.  Sometimes you need to be a dick!

TCTheater: Ashley is kicking ass and taking names.  Excellent capstone to papers segment.

SkeptiCareBear: Propaganda bad, but lack of all emotion worse.  Good talk by Ashley.

StevenTheWonky: Ashley is kicking ass.

ArcheoWebby: A presenter that knows how to use a computer.  Nice.  Good Job Ashley.

So that was awesome.  Then I went to watch the soccer game and it was so depressing, partially because there was no food at the bar and I was starving to death while also watching the US kill themselves — I’m happy for Japan, but we lost that game because we made a lot of stupid, careless mistakes and couldn’t get shots on Target.  My heart goes out to Abby Wambach.

Then I heard the end of the diversity in skepticism panel, which I sort of lost interest in thanks to DJ seeming to think that getting conservatives and religious people in the movement should be some sort of a priority.  I’m with Jamila on the whole getting active about causes that skeptic people should be able to see are ridiculous — the war on drugs, the prison policy.

Sean Faircloth gave essentially the same speech he’d given at the SCA Summit and it went over very well.  He’s a very good cheerleader.

Then there was the closing remarks from Randi and we were done.  I ran into Randi in the hallway and thanked him for letting me speak and he said he’d heard I’d done very well.  I’m sure he was just saying that, but it was still awesome.  I went down to the Del Mar and hung out with a lot of people who were still there and then went to Penn and Teller over at the Rio.  Boy are Las Vegas cabs expensive, by the way.  We were in the first seat in the Mezzanine, which was actually excellent because it was easier to see how they were doing the tricks.  A lot of their tricks have been on their show or on other shows, but it was still a lot of fun.  And then someone in the line for cabs recognized me and thanked me for my talk, so people at the Rio cab line probably thought I was some important person.  Buahaha.

Then I packed and went to bed.

Monday, I got on the airplane and swallowed my crown.  And I’m freaking out about it.  Yep.

TAM Saturday

I got up early on Saturday and headed to the Del Mar bar to meet Ginger Campbell, super awesome brain and ER doctor, to watch the 3rd place World Cup match between Sweden and France.  I didn’t stay for the whole thing, but Sweden ended up winning.  I missed a panel about paranormal investigation and a talk by Sadie Crabtree.  I fully intended to watch Sadie Crabtree, but got caught up in a conversation with Heidi Anderson in the Presenters room.

ASIDE: I am on the airplane and having a slow freak out because a crown on one of my teeth isn’t there and I have apparently swallowed it.  It doesn’t hurt, I didn’t notice when it happened, but now my throat hurts.  I assume I’m not going to die from swallowing a crown, right?  I wish this airplane had internet so I could send out a distress signal.

Anyway, I then got a tdap vaccine because I don’t want to get whooping cough.  My arm still hurts.

I got caught up in a discussion with PZ Myers and a group of guys about Elevatorgate and women in the movement.  It’s always weird to be the only woman in discussion about women because you’re treated as like a representative of the whole gender.  It was a good discussion though.  When they realized I was giving a talk the following day, they asked if it was going to be about women in the movement and seemed disappointed when I said it wasn’t going to be.  I told them that women join the movement because they care about skepticism and issues other than being a woman, I don’t want to be put in some ghetto where it’s my job to talk only about women.

Then, there was a panel about placebos and how and why they worked, and if it was possible to use the placebo effect intentionally and honestly.  It was an interesting discussion, though I wonder if it would have been better as a presentation rather than a panel discussion.

Elizabeth Loftus then spoke about manufacturing memories and how unreliable human memories are.  I found this very interesting because I’d just finished reading The Invisible Gorilla, which is about much the same thing.  Or at least I think it was, but I could be manufacturing that memory too…

Richard Wiseman was up next, but I don’t remember his talk at all.  Then it was lunch, where we talked about Mansplaining, Poe’s Law, and Godwin’s Law.

After lunch the magnificantly awesome Carol Tavris spoke about cognitive dissonance.  Her main point was that when you’re arguing with someone you have to be careful because if you say that their beliefs or opinions are stupid they won’t be able to agree because it won’t jive with their image of themselves as smart people.

Then!  Oh Then!  Then it was Bill Nye the Science Guy!  His talk was interesting, he was interesting, and we’re all pretty sure he is the Doctor.  It’s the bow tie.  After Bill, it was Richard Dawkins, who I didn’t actually think was that interesting.  He talked about his new children’s book, and then about aliens.  After PZ had been so entertaining on the subject Friday, Dawkins was a bit dry.  But, he started taking questions and that was fairly interesting.  We were all trapped in the room because there was a Chuck Norris convention at the hotel as well, and they were taking up the hallway.  Dawkins, adorably, didn’t know who Chuck Norris was.

That evening I went to a presenter’s reception, and got to spend some time hanging out with a lot of awesome people who were going to be speaking, including Debbie Goddard who I had not previously spent much time with.  But there was a drunk british guy from Shrewsbury who would not leave me alone.  I hate wine breath.  And I was not nice to him, but he kept following me.  He was so annoying that every time I tried to escape and enter a new conversation, everyone who was in that conversation would leave and leave me stranded.

He also kept touching me, which I found very disconcerting.  Fortunately, I was eventually rescued, and he was asked to leave, but it was pretty gross.

I was hungry, went to Steak and Shake, one of the two take out restaurants at the hotel — it took 45 minutes to get food.  It was horrible.  And the food was only OK as well.  Then I went to bed early, so I could get up for the papers on Sunday.

TAM Friday

First up this morning was a marginal breakfast.  I don’t understand this — why do people put cooked fruit into things that don’t need cooked fruit.  Cooked fruit is not chocolate.  It does not make things better.  It makes them measurably much worse.  Croissants don’t need jelly on the inside.  It’s gross.

George Hrab opened the conference with a brilliant song, the best part of which was the direction to make sure that any questions you direct at a speaker are actually questions, not opinions, speeches, or comments on the speaker.  It was pretty funny.

Michael Shermer was first up and I literally don’t remember what he talked about.  I was not awake and not that interested, so I guess it just didn’t stick.

Then there was a panel, Skepticism and TV.  I got over the fact that *I* wasn’t on the panel, but I have to say it is really hard to look at these panels of old white guys and think that they’ve made the effort to get more than one point of view.  When they found out Adam Savage wasn’t coming, they had the opportunity to try to get a minority or a woman on the panel, and they didn’t.  Which was a shame because everyone on the panel agreed with one another and didn’t have a lot of useful advice on how to get more skepticism on TV.

Here’s the thing, when you don’t have young people talking about what’s going on, you miss stuff.  If you don’t have women, or mothers, or people of color, or people from different socio-economic levels, you don’t hear about whether people are actually being exposed to skepticism on TV.

Did the old white men mention any of the children’s programming out there?  No, not at all.  And that’s probably the place where you see the most skepticism incorporated into fiction storylines.  Look at Dora the Explorer, or any of the other investigative type shows that are aimed at kids.  Those teach critical thinking and why don’t they think that that qualifies as skepticism on TV.  Yes, you watch Bones or whatever and it’s absurd and not related to real critical thinking, but prime time adult television is not the only thing on TV.  There’s more than the Discovery Channel.

They also talked a lot about editing and how to get around being edited in ways they don’t want to be.  I’ll just say that it’s almost impossible to get by a determined editor.  They’re tricksy people.

*deep breath*

Yes, so I took some issues with that panel.

Next up was Lawrence Krauss.  A few months ago, Krauss made some statements in support of his friend who was an admitted rapist of underage girls.  There was a fair amount of backlash, and threats to walk out on him at TAM.  If that happened, I couldn’t tell.  There’s so many people in and out of the room anyway, it wouldn’t have been noticed, but also I think that elevatorgate has so overshadowed this that no one quite cared as much.

He gave a history lesson on Richard Feynman, which was OK, but I wasn’t that interested in a biography.

Then Jamy Ian Swiss led James Randi and two others in a recap of Project Alpha, which was when two magicians pretend to have Uri Gelleresque powers for several years and the lab believed them despite the fact that it was very obvious what they were doing.  Embarrassing for science, but kind of hilarious for magicians.  It shows how lame psychics are.

Eugenie Scott was up next, but I didn’t listen to that talk, I looked at books and walked around.  I wasn’t very interested in Climate Change Denial and I was tired and wanted to move around.  I’m trying to get over feeling guilty for not going to every talk, but it’s uncomfortable to sit all day.

And then it was lunch — I sat with the amazing Greta Christina and several other really cool people.  Elevatorgate was the primary topic, but what I liked that we talked about was how the movement needs to be getting people in disadvantaged circumstances involved.  So many people who are in the movement are there because they are the ones who can afford it.  If you look at where the large populations of black people are, they are also poor places with strong religious communities.  South Carolina and Mississippi have huge percentage of black people in their population, and those are places where being an atheist is not necessarily safe but more importantly, these are places where there are problems facing the community that are so much more pressing than religion.  Teen Pregnancy, education, jail time.  These are problems that the skeptic community should be working on, because we can’t get people to participate if they’re struggling to live.  Let’s get people in better life circumstances so that they can spend time on education and learning to be scientifically literate.  And it’s not just the South, of course, it’s inner city, it’s Detroit, it’s Compton.

Ok, sorry, off the soapbox.

After lunch, it was just pure uninterrupted awesomeness.

Jennifer Michael Hecht spoke first, and she decided she was going to try to talk about everything that ever happened ever and that she would accomplish this by talking super fast.  She talked a lot about the history of skepticism, which is the focus of her very excellent book Doubt, A History.  She was fantastic.  She talked about the movie The Road to Wellville, and said that a lot of people who go to quacks do it because, essentially, they want the attention.  Though she also implied that women could get a happy ending from a chiropractor.

They had to cut her off before she was finished, and then it was time for PZ, who was hilarious.  Every slide had a picture of either squid or octopi, which I feel is necessary.  He was talking about the biology of aliens.  I think his most interesting point was that there are several highly intelligent animals on earth that are self-aware that we still don’t know how to communicate with, yet we’re seeking out aliens.

He was awesome, and was followed by Pamela Gay, who I didn’t particularly like.  Not that she wasn’t good, she was calling for more funding and emphasis on science.  What I didn’t like was her criticism of the skeptic movement as scattered, as though the emphasis of everyone on the movement should be on science.  The fact of the matter is that not everyone can care a lot about every cause — outrage fatigue.  Science education is important, and I’m for it and happy to support it, but it’s not what I’m particularly interested in.  It’s not the cause that I’m going to spend time on.  That’s not because I’m scattered, it’s because my time is spent elsewhere.  I appreciate her enthusiasm for the cause, but it’s not a very useful criticism.

And then it was time for the best thing I’ve ever seen ever.  I can’t wait for it to be on YouTube, because I want to watch it again.  It was a panel on the future of humans in space.  It was moderated by Phil Plait, and had Bill Nye the Science Guy, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Pamela Gay, and Lawrence Krauss.  NdGT started off real quiet and then he jumped in like a ninja and started kicking ass.  He thinks that we don’t spend enough money on science and we should double NASA’s budget and do everything.  The bank bailout was more money than everything we spent on NASA in its fifty year existence.  Lawrence Krauss sort of poo-pooed the idea of humans in space, and Neil deGrasse Tyson bitch slapped him, with major assistance from Bill Nye.

NdGT totally dominated, and I didn’t want it to ever end.  I would say it was impossible to follow, except it was Tyson himself who was following it up, so he was fine.  He is a great speaker — he’s funny, he’s passionate, and he knows what he’s talking about.  Once again, it was simply so amazing that it’s difficult to sum up.  His focus was on stupid things that people believe that aren’t true.  I told Jarrett that Bill Nye and NdGT should be in a buddy cop movie together, he tweeted it, and the Jen McCreight saw that NdGT in his talk was going to go on his Twitter feed and she quickly posted it AND he read it outloud.  Hysterically funny.  I want it to happen.

And when NdGT was finished, that was it for the day.  I went back to my room for a while, came back up while Jennifer Michael Hecht was doing autographs.  I sat in a throne-like chair beside her while she fielded people who wanted her signature on her books.  It was entertaining sitting on that side of the table.  After that, I went down to eat.  Saw Heidi Anderson briefly and then got ready for Penn’s Party.  I hung out with Jen McCreight and some people before the party and then it was time for Donuts and Bacon.

Penn has a band called the No God Band — they’re decent, and the party was essentially a concert for them.  They did a lot of covers and some original songs as well.  I ended up hanging with Jen some more, as well as Hemant and a few others.  I saw Christina Rad briefly, and that was fun.  It was really loud and I was really tired, so I ended up bailing after about an hour and a half.  Then I collapsed in exhaustion because my legs could no longer hold me up.

AND THAT WAS FRIDAY!

TAM 9 Thursday

So, yesterday I arrived in Las Vegas.  It was hot, but actually less hot than it was in Columbia, SC for the last few days.  I then immediately got some Baja Fresh, because brown salsa is amazing.

Then iw went to the hotel.  I ended up hanging out with Heidi Anderson in the speakers rooms with the logic that I am speaking.  I ended up spending time with the awesome Ginger Campbell, a fellow women’s soccer fan, Elizabeth Loftus, and a guy named McGaha.

We ended up talking a lot about the ethics of the porn industry, which wasn’t what I was expecting to talk about in the speakers room.  They must keep that coolness on the DL.

Then was dinner with the SC contingent.  And then the reception.

I hung out with Jennifer Michael Hecht, Jennifer McCreight, Greta Christina, Sean Faircloth, Richard Dawkins, Jamila Bay, Debbie Goddard, Sara Mayhew, and lots of other people who didn’t have their names listed in the program.

After the reception, I went to drinking skeptically where I had a diet coke and saw some people from the SCA Summit. 

Then it was time for HP7.2!  It was amazing.  Despite the fact that it didn’t start until 3AM eastern time, I didn’t almost fall asleep once.  It did complete justice to Snape, Neville, and Mrs. Weasley.

So far, there’s been a fair amount of talk about elevatorgate, but not too much.  A few jokes, some serious conversation.  Also, there’s apparently a musical, “Menopause the Musical” – I’ve heard it’s very dry.

Here comes TAM9 from Outer Space

image

As faithful readers of the blog will know, I am going to TAM in Las Vegas this weekend.  I am currently writing from the airplane because I was bored enough to shell out the $13.  It is the future.

Today, I will land around 1PM and then I’m going to go get food at Baja Fresh.  I’m very excited, it’s been so long since I’ve had Baja Fresh and it’s amazing.  There are workshops going on all day but I didn’t have the money to be going to all of that.  Tonight Rebecca Watson is having some thing that also costs money, so I probably won’t be going. I also don’t understand what the thing is, so that doesn’t help.

OMG trying to use wordpress from this droid browser is going to make me shoot myself. FFS.

Tonight, I am insanely going to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 at midnight. This is insane because it won’t start until 3AM east coast time, so I’m going to be very very tired. But how often do you get to go see the last Harry Potter the first night it comes out? Never, exactly.

Then tomorrow is filled with all sorts of stuff and I don’t even know what the schedule is. I feel somewhat guilty about that, like I should have paid more attention, but I’m going to all of it, so there’s no real point in looking into it more. Tomorrow night is Penn’s Donut Party, and I’m quite excited about that. I mean, it’s donuts and Penn Jillette, what isn’t to love? I even brought a special party dress! It, alas, doesn’t have a donut on it.

Saturday is more talks that I don’t remember who is when, the third place WWC game is that day between France and Sweden, and I honestly don’t care that much so I probably won’t watch, and then that night I get to go to a double top secret thing that is going to be awesome so you should be jealous, and also feel pretty cheated that I won’t even tell you what it is. On Sunday, I am presenting my paper at 9:50 AM. Awesome, right? There’ll only be like a thousand people in the audience, so no pressure. Then! Then then then!!! USA vs JAPAN, EPIC BRAWL 2011!

I want the US to win, but I have to say I would be really happy for Japan if they won. The team is really amazing, and it’s the first time an Asia side has gotten this far in the WWC. Plus, the whole tsunami meltdown thing. But, I want the US to win so that people will pretend to care about womens soccer for a few more days, I would find that greatly pleasing.

I am on the plane! On the plane! So bored on the plane! I’m on a plane and it’s going fast and I got a aeronautical themed pashmina afghan

Weirdly enough, George Hrab, the MC of the event, is on the same flight as me. I met him originally at the SCA summit in Washington DC where he performed and we took silly pictures and sent a message to a friend of mine who was insane jealous. Mostly because I don’t listen to the Geologic Podcast and he does, so I don’t have a terribly good knowledge of the George Hrabness. Anyway, he’s sitting behind me and threatening to throw things at me, though I think he’s so absorbed in his iPad or whatever it is that he won’t remember to do that. Plus, they don’t hand out free snacks, which is really the best thing to throw at people.

T-minus 1 hour to Las Vegas. Woooooooo!

Hopefully you’ll get lots of really boring updates from me, because I know you’re all really friggin jealous! I’m going to be hanging out with Heidi Anderson, Jenna Marie Griffith, Jen McCreight, Neil deGrasse Tyson (he will hang out with me, dammit, it will happen), and like 200 other awesome people who are awesome.

Alright, enough of this, I’m going to go back to surfing the web in an attempt to find something to write about for social axcess, I can’t find anything worth writing about.

Secular Coalition for America Summit: Day 2

Day one here

Friday, in the wee hours of the morning, right after I’d gotten to sleep, there was some sort of major commotion on the 8th floor of the Hyatt, very near to my room.  I’m not sure what it was, but I was told hotel security was called and I definitely heard a man who’d been woken up scream, “Shut the Fuck Up!”  I would have applauded, but I wasn’t so much for moving.

So, I was very tired when 7:30AM came around.  And then breakfast was disappointing.  How hard is it to have toast or oatmeal or something other than a very sketchy bready fruity thing?  Everything was cooked fruit.  How gross.  (Note: I’m far too picky for people to take my food opinions seriously.)

We, the godless horde, strode over to the Capitol to meet with some staffers.  Herb, Sharon and I first met with Tara O’Neill, who is a Legislative Aide (or LA in Hill Parlance) for Tim Scott.  Tara, a Clemson grad, was very nice and polite and listened to all we had to say about HR 1179 2011 (patient rights) and Humanist Military Chaplains.  But I’d like to give you some background on Tim Scott, so that you can understand exactly the lion’s den we three atheists were stepping into.

Godless Horde

Tim Scott is one of the mythological Black Republicans, and he’s Southern, so he’s about as common as a unicorn.  When he was on City Council he erected the 10 Commandments in the Council Office and the AU and ACLU proceeded to sue him to take them down.  He campaigned on bringing Christian Values to Washington, and was endorsed by Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin.  He opposes gay marriage, and probably doesn’t believe in atheists in foxholes.

HR 1135 2011

He took $117,000 in campaign ads from an anti-union group and then proceeded to sponsor legislation that would deny FOOD STAMPS to anyone who had a family member on strike.  HR 1135 2011.  It’s very clever, Sheriff of Nottingham level villainy going on.  “I want this brigand found. Starve them out, slaughter their… No, take their live stock. I want Locksley’s own people fighting to bring his head in.”

But enough about the life and legislation of Tim Scott, the staff was very nice — Tara and the UCSD student who greeted us and the gentleman in charge, who understood immediately what the SCA was doing.  We were done there by 9:30 and then headed over to meet with Lindsey Graham’s staffer Jason Brown, who is now my favorite person in DC.  On the way we walked past an armed guard who had an AK-47 — it didn’t look real, they should really make them look less like toys.

Our appointment wasn’t until 11, so we went down into the cool/creepy tunnels that run under the capitol, and went to a little coffee shop below ground.  Then we went back up to meet with Jason Brown.  The Senate offices are much, much nicer than the House offices.  Graham’s office was decorated with a bunch of pictures and paintings of and by South Carolinians.

I love this picture

Jason Brown is a lawyer working as a Legislative Aide for Lindsey Graham and he took us to a relatively swank conference room and we talked primarily about the issue of Humanist Military Chaplains.  He asked us some questions that implied an interest and definite understanding of why it was important to us.  That was reassuring.  Graham is an interesting character in terms of willingness to not toe the Republican Party Line at all times, and as someone on the Committee on Armed Services, he’s a good person to have on your side in this issue.

After that meeting, I went to Union Station, which is apparently just a large mall without a candy store, and met some others for lunch at Pizzeria Uno.  At 2, the panel discussion were set to begin.  Fred Edwords, who shall be Fredwords henceforth, the head of COR was the first to arrive.  He is working with some people in Columbia to get some buildboards here as well as some media training for locals, so it was nice to see a face I’ve seen a lot of e-mails from of late.

The panel was filled out by David Silverman (American Atheists), Jesse Galef (SSA), and Sally Quinn (editor of On Faith, Washington Post).  They spent some time talking about the rapture, which was supposed to happen Saturday, and how good it has been for the cause of Atheism.  David Silverman had been on CNN several times, and Herb Silverman was fielding media phone calls all day.

Sally Quinn then spoke for a while, and she was interesting, though I’m not sure I agree with her or where she’s coming from — it could be a generational thing.  She had some good zingers though.

You all look like you’re going to hell to me.  Tomorrow.

The world is not going to end tomorrow, keep on flossing.

Not one person in this room will be elected president of the United States.  There will be a woman, gay, and muslim president before there is an atheist president.

Effective media strategy is based on knowing more about faith than the other guy.  This is what makes Hitchens so good, he makes them just give up.  PEW says atheists are more knowledgeable about religion than the faithful.

Now, I have a little bit of a problem with the defeatist attitude towards the possibility of an atheist president.  There are, of course, quite a few who argue that we currently have one.  But an openly atheist president within my lifetime doesn’t seem like an impossibility to me.  Maybe I’ll run in however many years til I’m 35.

Then they got into a discussion of when anger was appropriate, and the consensus was it was good when other people also got angry, like when children died of neglect because their family refused medical care because of their religious beliefs.  Atheists should try to get in the news for doing community service and nice things, to help dispel the myth that Atheists are immoral or unfeeling.  Fredwords echoed things I’ve heard PZ say, which is that you need the firebrands to get attention and the nice people to negotiate change.

And then this is where Sally Quinn really went off the rails for me (and Jennifer Michael Hecht), when she started talking about what the stereotypical view of an atheist is.  Apparently Quinn thinks that the image people have in mind when they hear “atheist” is Madalyn Murray O’Hair who was fat, ugly, crazy and had a mustache and that what atheism really lacks is an ATTRACTIVE public representative.  Now, I don’t think that our current representatives like Dawkins, Faircloth, Harris, and Hitch are unattractive, I’d be more likely to put them in the generally attractive categories, so I’m just not sure if she means there are no attractive female public personalities or that no one has overcome the O’Hair legacy.

I dunno, she looks pretty hot to me...

The first doesn’t resonate with me because I’ve seen plenty of attractive women at atheist events.  The second doesn’t resonate with me because neither I nor Omar knew what O’Hair looked like.  So maybe this is an old-people-who-think-atheism-is-communism-because-they’re-old-and-stupid problem, because no one I know, and we’re people who are like into atheism so we know stuff about atheism, has any idea why anyone would care about O’Hair.  Everything I knew about her before Quinn’s comment is that she was killed before I was old enough to know anything and she was also an atheist.

Basically what I’m saying is that I don’t think we’re going to change the hearts and minds of Glenn Beck’s 70 year old audience, we just have to let them die.  Does anyone under the age of forty think that all atheist ladies have mustaches?  If so, I would like to disabuse you of this notion.  Many of us also have horns.

Then there was a lot more discussion about tone and tactics, which basically covered all the same ground over and over again, with various protests of various sorts from the panelist and audience members.  The most interesting discussion was about whether to participate in interfaith groups, which were exclusive of atheists by name and nature.

Legal Panel

The next panel was a team of legal experts, David Niose, Amanda Knief, and Mark Dunn.  Their discussion really reflected the rest of the thrust of the meeting in that it was calling for more personal stories rather than more theoretical problems.  To this end, they wanted to bring cases based on civil rights and equal protection, not on the Establishment Clause.

What it boils down to is this: when we make Tim Scott take down the 10 Commandments, we are absolutely right, but it makes us seem like assholes, but when we call someone out for violating civil liberties, like firing someone for being an atheist or refusing to allow them to form school groups or parents are denied custody because they aren’t religious, we seem like people who are just fighting to be treated equally.  And we get to tell personal stories of how the religious bias has hurt us, and people respond more to that.

And then we got a two-hour break, which I filled with caffeine, and then it was time for the reception/dinner that evening.

Paul Provenza opened with a comedic talk which was very similar to his talk at TAM.  He did have a good line, “Today we lobbied, or as I like to call it, fucked shit up.”  After dinner, JMH introduced Sean Faircloth, and she reiterated the broad theme (poetic atheism) of needing to tell human stories, we may be rational, but people need emotional connection.

Executive Director Sean Faircloth

And then Sean Faircloth spoke, and it was very State of the Union.  Lots of clapping, lots of broad, hear-hear sort of statements.  Spontaneous standing O at the end.  He thinks that Secular Americans are the next moral majority, a sleeping giant waiting to be motivated.  Then he gave a list of ten goals:

  1. Our military will serve all Americans, with no fundamentalism or religious bias or conversion
  2. Any federal/state funded program will be based on science, not belief
  3. Healthcare providers have a responsibility to their medical duties over their religious beliefs
  4. The legislature will represent the non religious
  5. There will be one consistent health standard for children, no religious exception
  6. Medical and scientific progress shall not be impeded by religious bias ever
  7. Discrimination based on religion will not happen
  8. Marriage can be defined by an individual religion however it wants, but the government cannot use religion for its definition
  9. Government zoning laws will respect all faiths and non-faiths equally
  10. Youth won’t be subjected to religious bias in schools.

Then, we were kicked out of the room because it was 9 and that was as late as they’d booked it.  I proceeded to join JMH and her husband and a few others at the bar, where she ordered a margarita, but couldn’t remember the word for salt.  This was immensely amusing.  Then there was a party in a room, and we went there.  There were all sorts of illicit activities going on (clothes all remained on) and I shan’t be more specific, but it was really fun.
JMH then did a poetry reading for the party, which was quite entertaining.  Because her poems are good, people were drinking, and it was so weird that someone would read poetry at a party in the first place.  I felt like a Beatnik, but cleaner.

PARTY!

And then, 2000 words later, I went to bed.