On Out-Group Shaming

The internet is used to shame people. This should be news to no one.

The internet is also a space for discourse. From this arises the practice of out-group shaming.

What do I mean by out-group shaming? On issues where there are different sides/groups/camps/positions, one side can point out and shame the other side whenever members of that other side do something wrong or bad. So, for example, Right Wing Watch is a website dedicated to “monitoring and exposing the activities of the right-wing movement.”

One immediate critique of this activity that comes to mind is that, by only focusing on negatives, it can skew perceptions and misrepresent the reality of a group. This is a fair critique, but it does not exclude all reasons for out-group shaming. For example, when discussing complementary and alternative medicine, detractors will point out that the evidence shows alternative medicine has no effect. A response to this point is to ask: “What’s the harm?” To answer this response, the website What’s The Harm? chronicles examples of harm done to people because they used alternative medicines and modalities.

What’s The Harm?’s dedicated out-group shaming has a purpose. It cannot be faulted for focusing on the negative because the point it is making is one in which that negativity is important. The website is literally pointing out harm. It is demonstrating that one cannot simply dismiss critiques of alternative medicine by claiming it is harmless.

Most websites dedicated to drawing attention to religious harm come from a similar position. Their aim is to rebut the argument that religion is needed because it has a positive effect by pointing out its ills.

Although out-group shaming can be useful, it is clearly prone to abuse. When not done with a good purpose or intent, out-group shaming basically devolves into the worst kind of schadenfreude. Moreover, if one is not careful, it is easy to try and justify pointless out-group shaming by referencing good reasons.

With this in mind, I want to point out two articles from the Friendly Atheist blog that, to my mind, fall under the category of pointless out-group shaming. The first was a post about a 14 year-old girl in Arkansas who found a valuable diamond and named it after God. The girl chose to name the diamond after God because, according to the girl, God helped her find it. The post points out that God probably didn’t help her find the diamond.

The story is that a young teenager found a diamond worth a lot of money. That’s what Fox News and the New York Daily News focused on. The fact that the young woman named the diamond after God because she feels God helped her find it is simply a part of personalizing a personal interest story.

Had the headlines been “God Helps Teen Find Valuable Diamond,” then there would be reason to address the claim. But that’s not what happened. This was a small story about one girl’s lucky find. Nothing more. Lauren Lane, the author of the Friendly Atheist post, acknowledges that she’s critiquing a young person, but she misses the general irrelevance of the story. The issue isn’t that she’s 14 years old. The issue is that you’re simply picking on someone for being religious.

The second post is about a “creepy bible teacher who recruited teenagers for his secret sex society.” In short, a teacher at a Christian academy coaxed a couple teenagers to join his made up secret society where he sexually assaulted them. This is a sad story, and the guy is a sick fuck who deserves more than the 12-year sentence he received. But the only reason the story appeared on the Friendly Atheist blog is because of the irrelevant point that the guy was religious.

Yes, the guy tied Christianity into his made up secret society, but this point is purely and obviously circumstantial. As such, an atheist blog that wants to draw attention to real harms done by religion has no reason to mention this story. Yes, this story needs to appear in the news. It is more than the space-filling personal interest story of the young woman and the diamond. But it has no place on an atheist blog, at least as I far as I can see.

Both of these stories, to my mind, are pointless acts of out-group shaming. They are mere schadenfreude. In fact, I would go so far as to call them onanistic Christian-bashing. Yes, bashing the other side can help solidify in-group bonds, and it is a guilty pleasure all groups participate in from time to time. However, these examples feel gratuitous to me. Especially since they appear on the Friendly Atheist blog. As the name implies, the mission of the blog seems to be more than base Christian bashing.

On Testing Christianity

Warning, this post rambles and is a bit unmoderated (perhaps aggressive?). It would likely look different if I wrote it in a calmer mood. But what would be the fun in that?

(Did you arrive via the Unapologetic Book Tumblr? Welcome!)

John A. David, at The Critical Eye, linked to an article by Francis Spufford suggesting that atheists are focusing on the wrong things when asking questions of Christianity. Why are atheists asking the wrong questions? To quote Spufford, “Christianity is changing, in ways that turn the case for faith into something much closer to the case for imagination.”

In short, Spufford concedes that God’s existence and Christianity’s truth cannot be proven. “Despite the best efforts of apologists like William Lane Craig, the ‘evidence’ for Christianity’s truth is, in truth, not the kind that science will or should ever admit.” Hold on, Craig doesn’t try to prove God’s existence through science. William Lane Craig and all other apologists that argue for God’s existence and Christianity’s veracity are philosophers and theologians. They are using reason and logic and argumentation to support Christianity. They don’t (nor do they claim to) do science to find evidence for God.

Instead of proof, “…believers mean something different by the word [truth]: something that puts faith permanently in the category of irreproducible results.” Spufford continues, “The most argument over the facts can do for us [Christians]–and it’s very important, of course–is to show that faith is not in conflict with the facts about how the universe works. Beyond that lies a guess we must make, an intuition we must act on.” Here’s more: “the case for the dignity and seriousness of faith becomes the case for the dignity and seriousness of the fundamental human activity of framing to ourselves what we cannot know: in short for imagining.”

Let that sink in.

Christians are fighting against the use of contraceptives in AIDS ravaged countries because of guess work and their intuition?!?!?!? Because of imagining?!?!?!?!?! WHAT THE FUCK???????????

And, no, I won’t take some shitty “Those aren’t real Christians” defense. Nor will some “they’re not truly following their intuition” defense work. Spufford is suggesting that faith claims reduce down to nothing more that guess work and intuition. Because we all exist in a certain vacuum of uncertainty, truth is imagination. Seriously. Fuck. You.

It gets better. Here is Spufford again: “I’m with Coleridge, when he said that the best argument for Christianity is ‘that it fits the human heart.’”

I’ll pause so you can vomit.

In my post about violence committed by Muslims, I stated that religious belief, that faith, plays a positive role in people’s lives. It leads them to positive actions. It gives them a place to ask questions and seek answers. However, it also produces violence, intolerance, injustice. It is multifaceted and deserves to be treated with the complexity so engendered.

Spufford’s article is one of the most trite, puerile, pollyannaish attempts to justify faith I have read in a long time. One of the strongest claims theism has going for it is that, if it is true, the dictates of the god that exists can be treated as absolute and objective. In other words, if the Christian God does exist, and this God does deem immoral the use of contraceptives in all situations, then the people resisting the use of contraceptives (even in AIDS ravaged countries) would be on the objectively right side of morality.

Spufford’s take on faith, as far as I can tell, makes God irrelevant. If belief in God is nothing more than unprovable guess work and intuition, why does belief in God matter?

For example:

(1) I believe in God, and god says stealing is wrong. So, I won’t steal. I don’t know if God exists, and it cannot be proven. But, I have faith that God exists.

(2) I believe stealing is wrong. So, I won’t steal. I don’t know if stealing is wrong, and it cannot be proven. But, I have faith that stealing is wrong.

What’s the difference, on Spufford’s account of faith as ‘imagination’? Honestly, I would like to know. Is there one?

Yes, I know that Spufford thinks God’s existence matters. He says as much. Here’s the quote: “I’m not saying it doesn’t matter whether God exists.” But he doesn’t make it clear exactly what role God is playing that makes Him significant and relevant, yet unprovable. His answer is to give some steeped in theology quote from St. Paul.

Spufford, to what do you appeal to verify St. Paul’s quote? I don’t mean whether or not St. Paul actually said it. I mean, how do you know what St. Paul meant with his words? Apparently, you “know” by imagination, guess work, and intuition.

One last thing, going back to the Coleridge quote, if Christianity just “fits the human heart,” why is more than 2/3’s of the world’s population not Christian?

Look, I think Spufford is correct on something. Human beings genuinely care about their lives. The want to live them well. They want their lives to be fulfilling, meaningful, rich, and virtuous. I understand why Spufford wants to move away from ‘Faith-as-God-exists’ to ‘Faith-as-that-which-matters-in-our-lives.’

But Christianity is more than that. Not all Christians are like Spufford. Christianity’s waning influence doesn’t mean that the claims of Christianity become unprovable guess work and imagination. It suggests they may be false. Which is good. Because then we can tell those people in AIDS ravaged countries to go ahead and use contraceptives. We can tell women they’re more then help meets. We can live humanely without the unnecessary need to insist on praise to an irrelevant deity.

My first posts on the page were on a similar topic (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). The move to try and make faith claims untouchable to confirmation and disconfirmation just makes them irrelevant. And this move seems to misunderstand knowledge. Yes, we humans can never (it seems) acquire knowledge with absolute certainty. But we don’t need absolute certainty to know things. If you need to make your faith unchallengable to keep it safe from critique, you should probably just abandon it altogether. It’s probably bunk.

On Sam Harris and Terry Firma on Violence by Muslims

Sam Harris has, in the past, been criticized as being Islamophobic. This is a charge that has been leveled at the New Atheists more generally, as they found a public voice in the wake of 9/11. Harris has an article up on his webpage that will likely further this criticism.

The gist of Harris’s article is to note that religious belief is a genuine motivator of violence in some instances. Harris provides four examples of motivators to violence; ideological motivation being one of them. On the face of it, this is an uncontroversial statement. Harris drives it home because he thinks our deference to religious belief leads us to be weak in criticizing religion. There are Muslims who commit atrocious acts of violence because they are believing, practicing Muslims. Harris doesn’t want to sugar-coat that statement. Nor should he.

However, addressing this basic fact requires nuance and care. This is where Harris has opened himself up to criticism. A common response to Harris’s point is to claim that the religious belief is not actually a motivating factor. Instead, it is seen as a pretext to justify other actions. I think Harris is right to reject this. Let’s use a non-violent example. The Westboro Baptist Church members that picket funerals do so because they genuinely hold their beliefs. Other Christians may find the group’s practice abhorrent. However, the charge that they aren’t “true Christians” but bad people using Christianity as a pretext to justify bad acts doesn’t hold water. (A) It runs afoul of the No True Scotsman fallacy. (B) It robs the members of the Westboro Baptist Church the right to self-identify. Religious people do heinous things because of their religious beliefs. You can’t claim it is not truly religious because you don’t like it.

However, Harris can’t have his cake and eat it too. Most people holding religious beliefs do not commit violent acts of the sort Harris is addressing in his article. Likewise, religious beliefs lead people to great acts of kindness and good. Moreover, not all religious believers will take violent action. Just because jihad and martyrdom compel some to violence doesn’t mean that all seeking jihad and martyrdom will be violent.

Some people’s beliefs in religion leads them to commit violent acts. Pretending they aren’t truly religious beliefs is false and disempowering. However, overemphasizing this point is equally problematic, especially in regards to minority groups. When abused, it can be prejudicial. Hence, the charges of Islamophobia.

To see this in action, Terry Firma, writing at the Friendly Atheist, provided a review of and commentary on Harris’s article. In his article, Firma references a recent Pew Research Center study on Muslims’ views on religion, politics, and society. He points out that the study found that the worldwide median of Muslims who believe that “Suicide bombing is never or rarely justified” is at 72%.

Firma then comments:

Except… well, what about the other 28 percent? There are roughly 1.3 billion Muslims on this planet. If 28 percent of them support violent jihad, that’s 364 million Muslims who condone, at least in some instances, the murder of apostates, blasphemers, gay people, cartoonists, loose women, and possibly everyone godless enough to attend a marathon.

The question in the Pew poll asked is suicide bombing was ever justified. How Firma jumps from that to “murdering apostates, blasphemers, gay people, cartoonists, loose women, and possibly everyone godless enough to attend a marathon” is beyond me. It seems to require questionable logic and a predisposition to categorizing Muslims as violent. Just because these groups have been the target of violence in the name of Islam does not mean all Muslims who would justify violence in the name of Islam would have agreed with such acts of violence.

To use a specific example, there may be 28 percent of Muslims who think suicide bombing may be justified, but this does not mean all 28 percent think the suicide bombing of the Christian Church in Peshawar was justified.

Firma continues:

There are 2.6 million Muslims living in the U.S.… x 19 percent… yep, almost half a million American Muslims give suicide bombers and child-murderers-for-Allah two big thumbs up when they feel the violence is somehow justified.

Again, there are 2.6 million Muslims living in the U.S. who think there are occasions when suicide bombing is justified. How that becomes supporting “child-murderers-for-Allah” is beyond me. Except, of course, when one carries a prejudicial mindset about a group of people. A mindset we might call Islamophobia.

Let’s be clear, the question asks if suicide bombings and violence toward civilian targets is ever justified when done in defense of Islam. Some Muslim’s say yes. But only 1% of American Muslims and 3% of Muslims worldwide think it is often justified. 7% of American Muslims and 8% of Muslims worldwide say it is sometimes justified. What does “often” and “sometimes” look like to these Muslims? I don’t know. That level of specificity is not provided. But, these percentages are a far cry smaller than the ones quoted by Firma.

At best, Firma’s post reads as hyperbolic and reactionary. At worst, the post is Islamophobic. I do not know Terry Firma, so I cannot comment on the kind of person he is. However, I feel comfortable suggesting he be more cautious and mindful the next time he tries to tackle religiously motivated violence.

Regarding Harris, he too seems a bit ham-fisted at times. As I mentioned at the beginning, I agree with his point that religious belief motivates violence. I do not think that basic point should be whitewashed. However, it does not motivate all believers to violence. Sometimes, it motivates believers to non-violence. As such, that basic fact must be treated with the nuance necessary of such multifaceted subjects.

Terry Firma’s contribution does nothing but further the notion that atheists are intolerant of religious believers, generally, and Muslims, specifically. Likewise, it uses exaggeration and speculation to accuse Muslims of being more supportive of violence than they necessarily are. I have no problem with cataloging and criticizing instances of religious violence, but fear-mongering a group of people is never acceptable.

On Obamacare Commentary

American political discourse has been slowly dying, but it has been accelerating as the debt ceiling deadline approaches. This is perhaps best exemplified by the discourse on the Affordable Care Act.

According to Republican and conservative commentators, Obamacare is an unconstitutional, un-American, fascist, enslaving (and here), over-reach by the spoiled brat known as the US President, Barack Obama.

How do these commentators see themselves? As heroes fighting the 9/11 hijackers or like the 300 Spartans fending off the Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae.

WHAT?!?!?!?!?!?!?

Frank Bruni wrote a good op-ed for the New York Times addressing this. Sadly, I’m pretty sure it will be drowned out by the cacophony of hyperbolic bullshit that is now political discourse.