Five challenges for atheists and secularists in 2016

by Michael Nugent on January 1, 2016

These are my five challenges for atheists and secularists in 2016.

1. Oppose the silencing word ‘Islamophobia’
2. Promote robust civil dialogue not Internet rage
3. Normalise the use of the word atheism
4. Promote fundamental human rights
5. Promote ethical secular democracy

It is a follow-up to my review of 2015 for atheists and secularists.

Those of us who live in secular liberal democracies should actively support those who courageously promote these ideas in more dangerous regions. We should also directly promote the ideas in our own democracies and online.

1. Oppose the silencing word ‘Islamophobia’

Ayan Degree 2
We should reject and challenge the use of the word ‘Islamophobia’. It is typically used to conflate two ideas (criticism of Islam, which is just, and bigotry towards Muslims, which is unjust) and it uses language that suggests that those who criticise Islam have a mental illness.

By building the term around the word ‘Islam’ rather than the word ‘Muslim’, some people can use it to try to silence criticism of Islam, even when that criticism is aimed at protecting Muslims, who are the most common victims of Islamic human rights abuses.

I support the idea of popularising a phrase to describe and oppose bigotry towards Muslims as people. I strongly oppose the ideas of ‘anti-Muslimism’ or ‘anti-Muslim bigotry’ as unjust and harmful. But I reject the idea of ‘Islamophobia’, because criticism of Islam is reasonable and necessary.

We should give Muslims the respect of treating them as individual people, not a monolithic group. Most are ordinary Sunnis or Shias whose priority is to live normal lives. Some piously follow their religion, while some in the West drink alcohol and don’t wear veils but consider themselves culturally Muslim. Some are persecuted Shia or Ahmadi or female or gay or reformist Muslims.

Some lead Islamist regimes that impose Sharia by force on other Muslims and religious minorities, including the Wahhabi Sunni regime in Saudi Arabia with its religious police and a law that defines atheism as terrorism, and the Shia regime in Iran where a psychotherapist was executed in 2014 for publishing innovative interpretations of the Quran and having sex outside of marriage.

Some are international terrorist groups, from the Shia Hezbollah in Lebanon with its aim of obliterating Israel, to the Sunni ISIS who promote their supposed Caliphate by murdering concertgoers in Paris. Some are religiously motivated murderers. In Bangladesh, three secular bloggers and a publisher were hacked to death last year. In Pakistan, when Christian woman Asia Bibi was condemned to death for insulting Mohammad, two politicians who supported her were murdered, one by his own bodyguard.

Is Islam a religion of peace or a religion of violence? That’s like asking is a rainbow yellow? Parts of it are, but the rainbow itself is not. Like most religions, Islam is a religion of contradictions. For many faithful Muslims it is a source of comfort through submission. And for many dissidents it is a source of violence and oppression.

But unlike religions in secular democracies, Islam in Islamic States is an integrated religious, judicial, political and military ideology and system of social governance. And you cannot disentangle the religious, judicial, political and military elements of Islam, and say that just one of those is Islam, because it is the combination of all of these that constitutes Islam.

The laws of secular liberal democracy have evolved over the centuries to gradually reflect more nuanced ideas about freedom of conscience, and equality before the law, and individual human rights. But the values of Islam and Sharia are shackled to the Quran and the Hadiths, documents that are up to thirteen centuries old. And any proposed changes must be made consistent with those texts, that reflect the values of a more violent and undemocratic era.

Also, supporters of Islam, unlike secular democrats, must believe that the creator of the universe dictated the book that Islam is based on, and that book simply cannot be wrong. Whereas I as a secular democrat can happily say: show me evidence that I am mistaken, and I will change my mind. I won’t retreat behind theological claims to justify retaining the ethics of a more barbaric era.

The IHEU has just published its 2015 Freedom of Thought Report, an annual global report on discrimination against humanists, atheists and the nonreligious. The countries with the best records are all secular, with separation of religious and political authorities, such as Belgium, Estonia, Fiji, Kosovo, Netherlands and Taiwan.

Four fifths of of the countries with the gravest violations are Islamic or mostly Islamic. They include Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates and Yemen in Western Asia; Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Maldives and Pakistan in Southern Asia; Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia in South Eastern Asia; and Comoros, Egypt, Gambia, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Sudan in Africa.

Other States with grave violations are split between Islam and Christianity, such as Eritrea and Nigeria in Africa; are mostly Christian, such as Ethiopia and Swaziland in Africa; or are neither religious nor democratic, such as China and North Korea in East Asia.

So that is my first challenge for atheists and secularists in 2016: reject and challenge the use of the silencing word ‘Islamophobia’, give Muslims the respect of treating them as individual people, and criticise the human rights abuses inflicted on Muslims and others by Islamism.

2. Promote robust civil dialogue not Internet rage

Sea Lion
We should robustly promote our ideas, and oppose ideas with which we disagree, while remaining civil and respectful to the people with whom we are disagreeing. This can be hardest to do online, where shock-bloggers and internet mobs prefer to promote Internet rage.

There are two ways in which Internet rage can spread. One way is when an individual like American shock-blogger PZ Myers spends years deliberately and consistently spreading hatred of people with whom he disagrees. Another way is when uncoordinated Internet mobs unjustly attack an individual like British scientist Tim Hunt, and the defamation spreads spontaneously through the Internet and into mainstream media.

PZ’s FreeThought Blogs network eventually imploded last year, with Ophelia Benson leaving after being unjustly labelled a transphobe, and founder Ed Brayton leaving citing the health impact of the drama and stress of running the network. It is now losing traffic and revenue. The departing Ed and Ophelia had accounted for a third of the traffic, and PZ now accounted for 90% of the rest. Another FreeThought blogger, Jason Thibeault, predicted some of the network’s bloggers might now have lean months with zero income.

The meltdown was like the movie Little Shop of Horrors, in which flower shop assistant Seymour feeds an exotic plant’s ever-greater craving for human blood, until the plant finally grows large enough to turn on Seymour himself and destroy the flower shop. But the bloodthirsty plant is not an analogy for the attackers themselves, some of whom seem vulnerable and unjustly hurt in life. It is an analogy for the channelling of anger, which can sometimes be valid, into personal hatred and unjust behaviour.

The defamation of Tim Hunt was different. After he gave an impromptu short speech at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, he was publicly smeared as a misogynist and had to resign from his position as an honorary professor with the University College London’s Faculty of Life Sciences, and from the Royal Society’s Biological Sciences Awards Committee

These smears were spread online mostly by decent people who believed the original story, and who believed that they were doing good by exposing somebody who they believed was bad, or at least who had engaged in bad behaviour. The mainstream media, who should have had more responsible editorial checks and balances, spread the smears uncritically.

But the people spreading the smears were mistaken. Painstaking research by English author and politician Louise Mensch later revealed that Tim Hunt, and other audience members, were smiling; that Tim ended his toast with congratulations to women in science, and a wish that nothing would hold them back; that Tim was mocking himself, using an ironic tone to do so; and that he sat down to laughter and applause.

It was only a day later that some people started criticising Tim Hunt, and that was after they said that he had attended another session, on sexism in science, and had stood at the back of the room smiling as he was questioned about his earlier speech. But they were mistaken. Tim was not at that session, and they had mistaken an audience member for him.

Louise Mensch then catalogues how three journalists, Connie St. Louis, Deborah Blum and Ivan Oransky, falsely reported, in a tweet they all verified, a misleading account of Tim Hunt’s speech from the day before. And the BBC later apologised for wrongly attributing wording to Tim that he had never said.

Please read Louise Mensch’s comprehensive research on how this smear began and spread.

Here are some things to consider when engaging in online debate.

  • Not everything you read on the Internet is true. If you read a controversial claim, check the source. Keep searching for a reliable source that satisfies you of the truth or otherwise of the claim. Then respond, based on the most reliable information you have found.
  • Online debates can magnify misunderstandings and intensify hostility, when compared to real-life conversations. Remember that we are dealing with real people who have feelings. Don’t humiliate, marginalise or ostracise people who are seeking to discuss things.
  • It’s important to be angry when anger is justified, but it’s often not helpful to publish what we feel while we are angry. The best use of anger is for it to motivate us to take practical actions to make things better. We can best do this when we are thinking clearly about what we are doing.
  • When responding to something we disagree with, assume good intent. Respond to the issues. Point out what we agree with as well as what we disagree with. Ask them to also assume good intent on our behalf.
  • Don’t stereotype people who disagree with us. Engage reasonably with people who sincerely disagree with us on issues. Seek explanations and apologies from people who post personal attacks, but otherwise don’t let them dictate our agenda.
  • Try to find creative ways to advance the underlying interests of both us and the people who we disagree with, rather than just compete with them or capitulate to them on the specific examples we are discussing.
  • Be prepared to back down from our positions when we realise that we were mistaken. This can be harder to do on the internet, because our positions are permanently published not merely spoken, but do it anyway.

None of this is to suggest that we should silence ourselves, or allow ourselves to be silenced, when opposing harmful ideas either online or offline. In particular, Universities should be prepared to host events at which speakers cause offence to people who do not share their beliefs, as long as such events do not break the laws of the land or incite violence or crime.

This is important because universities are not the same as private bodies with their own political agendas. Universities are public bodies that should foster freedom of expression, and encourage critical thinking and intellectual growth among students and staff.

So that is my second challenge for atheists and secularists in 2016: promote robust civil dialogue not Internet rage, while remaining civil and respectful to the people with whom we are disagreeing.

3. Normalise the use of the word atheism

AI Table 1
We should try to normalise the use of the word atheism in public discourse. Some atheists believe that it is more pragmatic to use softer words, like humanist or freethinker or nonreligious, to avoid the prejudice that some people associate with the word atheism.

But those linguistic retreats merely reinforce the prejudice against atheists, despite us having a reasonable and philosophically defensible worldview that is proportionate to the evidence. There is considerably more evidence that humans invented the idea of gods than there is that gods actually exist.

The unjust prejudice against atheists will continue for as long as nobody sees us doing constructive things while self-identifying as atheists. Indeed, the only way to gradually chip away at the prejudice is for us to be seen to self-identify as atheists while doing constructive things.

So if you self-identify as an atheist, then do so publicly if it is safe to do. And if you prefer to self-identify as a humanist or freethinker, because you think these terms add specific values to your atheism, then consider describing yourself as an atheist humanist or an atheist freethinker.

In Atheist Ireland we made it a priority, when we were founded seven years ago, to normalise the use of the word atheism in Irish politics. That is now happening. It is no longer unusual for the Irish media to interview a spokesperson for an atheist advocacy group, and Irish politicians now expect to be lobbied by atheists promoting secular policies.

In the Oireachtas, Irish parliamentarians used the words atheist and atheism 26 times last year, as many times as they did in the fifteen years combined before Atheist Ireland was founded, and increasingly most of the mentions are descriptive rather than pejorative.

Historically, TDs and Senators used the words atheist or atheism only 63 times in the first ninety years of the Oireachtas; that’s about once every year and a half. But they have used the words 97 times in the seven years since Atheist Ireland was founded; about 14 times a year. The average for the past three years has been 21, thirty times as often as before we were founded.

One of the first uses of the word atheism in the Oireachtas was in 1931, when Frank Fahy of Fianna Fail assured the Dail: “No Party in this House, and no Deputy in this House, desires to see Communism, Atheism or Godlessness spread in this country.” In 2016 you will be more likely to hear a TD or Senator support or oppose proposals from an Atheist Ireland briefing document about a Bill being debated.

Atheist Ireland also has a weekly email newsletter called Secular Sunday, a monthly Information Table, a Kiva team that raises money for developing world entrepreneurs, and monthly Secular Sunday Brunches and public meetings around the country. These also help to normalise the idea that atheists are normal people who do constructive things.

So that’s my third challenge for atheists and secularists in 2016: do constructive things, and be seen to do constructive things, while explicitly self-identifying as an atheist. That is how we will gradually end the prejudice against what is a reasonable, proportionate and evidence-based worldview.

4. Promote fundamental human rights

MN Jane Geneva
We should promote internationally agreed human rights, particularly the right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief, the right to equality before the law, the right to freedom from discrimination, the right to private and family life, the right to freedom of expression, and the right to an effective remedy to vindicate rights that are breached.

The 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights is a strong foundation upon which to build ethical secular policies, along with the two main treaties that seek to implement it: the International Covenant on Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. There are also other agreements based on particular areas of rights.

While these agreements are not perfect, they provide the strongest approximation we have to a set of human rights that can be objectively monitored. And while the UN Human Rights Council is flawed and political in nature, the UN Human Rights Committees are composed of independent legal experts who regularly question every State about their human rights record.

The Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and its supporting treaties, stand in stark contrast to the rival Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam. This was developed by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference in 1990. It filters human rights through the supremacy of Sharia law, and is more focused on protecting islam and Sharia than protecting human rights.

Human rights are not lofty aspirations, but are the absolute rock bottom minimum standards that we should expect to have without even having to campaign for them. Human rights standards are the most difficult for our opponents to argue against, because they are not merely our personal preferences, but minimum standards agreed by many States around the world.

In two weeks time, Atheist Ireland will travel to Geneva, where the United Nations will be examining the Irish State about its human rights obligations under the International Covenant on the Rights of the Child. In May we will return, when the UN Human Rights Council will be questioning Ireland under the Universal Periodic review process.

This will be our third year doing this, following our successful interventions in Geneva when Ireland was being questioned by the UN Human Rights Committee under two other important treaties, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 2014 and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 2015.

Both times, the UN Committees told Ireland that it was breaching fundamental human rights of atheists and members of minority faiths, as raised by Atheist Ireland in our written submissions to the Committees and our lobbying in Geneva.

As well as getting many important decisions in our favour on secular issues, including religious discrimination in schools and hospitals, religious oaths for high office and blasphemy laws, the UN Human Rights Committee made a significant point to the Irish State that applies equally to other States.

Ireland told the UN that the reason that it denies pregnant women their abortion rights under the Covenant was because they are expressing the will of the Irish people as expressed through referendum. The UN Human Rights Committee told Ireland that this reason was totally unacceptable. It said that human rights cannot be denied by a majority vote in Parliament or referendum, and that the whole point of international human rights law is to avoid the tyranny of the majority.

As well as the United Nations, we also attend meetings of the European Union, the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, where we advocate for secularism in the face of many better-resourced lobby groups advocating for religious interests.

So that is my fourth challenge for atheists and secularists in 2016: promote internationally agreed human rights standards, and take part in the feedback and lobbying process when your own State is being questioned by the UN Human Rights Committees.

5. Promote ethical secular democracy

Banner on March
With human rights standards as our foundation, we should build on that foundation by actively promoting fair and just societies, governed by ethical secular democracies. We should each do this as individuals, and some atheist groups may also choose to do so collectively. We can each share this goal while having different specific ideas about how best to pursue it.

Secularism is a force for good in three ways.

1. Secularism protects everybody’s freedom of conscience and religion and belief by staying neutral between them. Secularism is not the same as atheism. Religious States promote religion. Atheist States promote atheism. Secular States promote neither.

2. Secularism allows religious people to focus on preparing for whatever next world they believe in, based on applying faith to their imagined divine revelations, and it allows the State to focus on governing this world, based on applying reason to the best available evidence.

3. Secularism combines with human rights standards as a foundation stone on which we can build a liberal democracy, which can in turn combat other threats to human rights such as fascism and totalitarianism and communism and the unregulated free market.

Secularism has many practical advantages. The happiest countries are secular liberal democracies, including Scandinavian countries and northern European States. In general, secular countries have lower rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion.

Studies published by social scientist Phil Zuckerman and others have shown that atheists and secularists are typically less nationalistic, less prejudiced, less racist, less dogmatic, less ethnocentric, less closed-minded and less authoritarian; more politically tolerant and more supportive of gender equality, abortion rights and gay rights.

There is a pathway to secular rational values. The World Values Survey, conducted by a team of interdisciplinary social scientists, suggests that as individuals move from survival values to self-expression values, which is triggered by investments in health, education, communication technologies and democracy, societies then move from traditional religious values to secular rational values.

How can we promote ethical secular democracy?

  • We can promote the principles that public policy should be formed by applying reason to evidence, and that there should be one secular law for all, democratically decided and evenly enforced, with no jurisdiction for religious courts to settle civil matters.
  • We can tackle specific injustices that are related to religious dogmas, such as reproductive health rights, same sex marriage, blasphemy and apostasy accusations, genital mutilations and ‘honour’ killings.
  • We can build alliances with others who, like atheists, also face prejudice and social discrimination. We can identify and work together on specific issues of mutual interest, and support and empower each other.
  • We can ask candidates in elections their position on secular issues, and publicise their responses to enable secularists to know which candidates or parties are most likely to promote ethical, secular policies.
  • We can objectively examine the impacts of social discrimination, and identify the best ways to promote fair and just societies, so that we can develop evidence-based arguments that can guide our ethical instincts.

So that is my fifth challenge for atheists and secularists in 2016: actively promote fair and just societies, governed by ethical secular democracies.

Summary

To summarise, these are my five challenges for atheists and secularists in 2016.

1. Oppose the silencing word ‘Islamophobia’
2. Promote robust civil dialogue not Internet rage
3. Normalise the use of the word atheism
4. Promote fundamental human rights
5. Promote ethical secular democracy

Those of us who live in secular liberal democracies should actively support those who courageously promote these ideas in more dangerous regions. We should also directly promote the ideas, in our own democracies and online.

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{ 46 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ron Nelson January 1, 2016 at 11:50 pm

This is an admirable list, Michael. I will endeavour to live by it an encourage others, also, to do so.
Thank you.

2 Shatterface January 2, 2016 at 12:40 am

Re: Tim Hunt. The internet played a huge part in that story but the MSM – in particular The Guarniad – threw a lot of petrol on the fire. They also provide a regular platform for the likes of Adam Lee to defame and spread lies about atheists.

The New Statesman also provides a platform for atheist-bashers and theocratic bigots.

FreeThoughtBlogs now sleeps with the fishes; literally, I suspect, in some cases.

It’s time to target the MSM and make sure we are fairly represented.

3 Mark Connolly January 2, 2016 at 1:25 am

Good list. I was thinking recently that the next census could be an opportunity also. Secularism is under reported due to some folks not being comfortable with the atheist/ no religion label. One route that could be pursued would be to have a category added for ”non practising Catholic’ or similar. This would categorise the folks who are culturally Catholic and identify that way, but are not religious in any real sense of the word. Could be a useful means of getting a real debate as to the level of secularism in Ireland. Has AI ever considered lobbying in this regard?

4 Shatterface January 2, 2016 at 2:20 am

A category for ‘lapsed Catholic’ you mean? It’s certainly possible that ex-Catholics still identify as Catholic for political reasons.

5 John Greg January 2, 2016 at 6:00 am

Your list is excellent, Michael.

6 Tetenterre January 2, 2016 at 6:35 am

I agree with all of that except the exhortation to preface how I describe myself with the adjective “atheist”, i.e. “non-theist”. I choose to describe myself with words that describe what I am, not what I am not.

More on this at:
http://tete-enterre.blogspot.co.uk/2011/02/dont-call-me-atheist.html?m=1

7 Mark Connolly January 2, 2016 at 9:08 am

@shatterface. Something like that yes. The facts are that 80%+ of this country were born into ‘Catholic families’. In the last census you could select Catholic, No Religion or type something into the ‘other’ section. I think it’s reasonable to assume that a sizeable proportion of the 80% + are non practising and I don’t think it’s helpful that they get lumped in to the ‘Catholic’ banner. It gives religious and quasi reigious groups much more clout (and airtime) than they actually merit. It allow Government policy to be framed with a ‘majority Catholic’ ethos in mind. Not 100% sure the best way to go, perhaps a secular box would be better and you could select this in addition to whatever religious belief you tick. After all being ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ is not mutually exclusive. Something that should be highlighted more and used as a bridge between theists and atheists when it comes to public policy/matters of state.

8 Malky January 2, 2016 at 11:46 am

Good read and list to aspire to

9 Jerry Coyne January 2, 2016 at 12:22 pm

Great list, Michael. I agree completely, and will post on this, referring people here.

10 Gary January 2, 2016 at 1:16 pm

This is a wonderful piece and I hate to sound ‘half empty’ or be a ‘fly in the ointment’ but…how can this be achieved, particularly points 4&5, in the light of fanaticism and idealogloy that is prepared to do anything that goes against these two points?
We know about those successful secular states mentioned who are now under incredible pressure to capitulate to allow the intolerable to happen under the very freedoms they promote. Yes this is sounding anti Islamic but that is the fact of the matter. Do we as secularists allow, under religious freedom, for sharia courts to be set up for example, or categorically say no to an archaic way of thinking? Therefore what freedoms are we talking about. I’m not sure we can have it both ways. How can you reason with the unreasonable? “Peace in our time” comes to mind!
One final point. While I applaud the acknowledgment of the use of the ridiculous word ‘islamaphobia’, maybe a more literal than apologetic use would be more appropriate? ‘Fear of Islam’ – yes. ‘Fear of submission’ – yes.
Apologies if I’ve missed the point. Happy New Year All!

11 J January 2, 2016 at 5:54 pm

I’ve been an atheist for half of my life now. I was raised in a church and went to Christian schools through the end of high school. Even to this day, when I hear the word ‘atheist’ I feel a momentary pang of guilt or discomfort because that was the thing I had tried to avoid being (or even considering) for so long–despite having doubts about religion even as a child.

The word “atheist” is probably the most demonized word in the English language, and I certainly agree its use needs to be normalized at the expense of terms like “non-religious” and “free-thinker”. I identify as an atheist openly, and I hope eventually the word will have no ingrained negative associations that make me shudder for a split second before realizing it’s in fact a great thing to be.

It’s also worth mentioning that atheism and agnosticism are not mutually exclusive, and that most atheists are also agnostic, and vice versa. I don’t know that there is or isn’t a god, therefore I’m agnostic. I don’t believe that there is a god because I have absolutely no reason to think so, therefore I’m also an atheist.

12 Scott Malcomson January 2, 2016 at 6:06 pm

Entirely agreed.

Be advised that you’re hardly alone: video-game enthusiasts from 2014 to the current day continue to be silenced with the words “harassment” and “misogyny”, which are precisely as accurate to the GamerGate movement as “Islamophobia” is to the Atheist movement.

We are still in the trenches, and still fighting the same sorts of shock-bloggers and poor journalism you are. Granted, our interests and goals do not overlap, but then again neither are they in opposition. Nonsense is nonsense regardless of whom it is directed at, and all reasoning persons should stand against the howling mobs or else be subject to them.

13 Mark Connolly January 2, 2016 at 6:39 pm

@ J. Please read back your posts. They make no sense and the two categories are absolutely mutually exclusive. You can say you don’t know (agnostic) of you can say you don’t believe or think (atheist). To hold both views concurrently is nonsense. Pick the one that best describes your view and go from there….

14 Jan Steen January 2, 2016 at 6:40 pm

There’s a common denominator of shock bloggers like PZ Myers, those who will accuse you of Islamophobia for criticizing a certain religion, and the ‘journalists’ who lied about Tim Hunt. They are all infected with a contagious disease known as Identity Politics. The chief characteristic of this affliction is its tendency to divide people into groups, based on a single marker: privilege.

According to Identity Politics, those with little privilege are by definition oppressed; those with a lot of privilege are oppressors, unless they have gone through a process of self-criticism called “checking your privilege”. The most privileged people in the world, at least according to the identitarians (better known as SJWs), are cis-gendered, heterosexual, white men.

Still according to those SJWs, privileged people have no business criticizing the less privileged. As a corollary, it follows that white men, sitting on the pinnacle of privilege, are by default classified as oppressors, who have to shut up and listen. If they dare to criticize women or non-white people (‘people of color’), they will be vilified as sexists, misogynists, MRAs, racists or, worst of all, Islamophobes.

Bigotry is a feature, not a bug of Identity Politics. More rational people will understand that privilege is only a highly superficial characteristic, which is independent of people’s individuality and personal responsibility. I may be a cishet white man, but I will have much more in common with people with a different skin colour or gender who share most of my interests and ideas, than with millions of other cishet white men who share almost none.

As atheists and secularists we need to focus on ideas and the actions of individual people; we should try not to think in terms of groups of ‘good people’ versus ‘bad people’. Group thinking is always a recipe for discrimination and bigotry, especially if it is based on involuntary characteristics, such as skin colour, gender or privilege.

We need to support freedom of speech above all. If we try to silence those we disagree with, we should not be surprised if others will try to silence us. Blasphemy laws and Political Correctness are silencing tactics that we should recognize and reject as such.

15 Citizen Wolf January 2, 2016 at 6:55 pm

@Mark Connolly
Atheist and agnostic are not mutually exclusive. I don’t believe in Bigfoot but I don’t know for certain that such a creature doesn’t exist. Likewise I don’t believe in any gods that I’ve ever heard about, but I don’t know for certain that no gods exist. I’m both an atheist and an agnostic.

16 mark January 2, 2016 at 7:02 pm

that’s a genius idea. what the hell do you think it is we do?
how much do you make?

17 J January 2, 2016 at 7:30 pm

@Citizen Wolf

Exactly. Thanks for saying it for me.

Part of normalizing atheism involves helping your agnostic friends to realize most of them are also atheists.

18 Tetenterre January 2, 2016 at 7:47 pm

@J,

Most? All!

(it’s not new, but everyone is atheist with respect to the gods of other religions -which is another reason I think it’s such a singularly useless adjective to describe a human being – no more enlightening than, e.g. homiothermic – but agree with the notion that it shouldn’t be demonised)

19 J January 2, 2016 at 8:14 pm

@Tetenterre

You’re right. And yet we do have quite a few atheists who are not agnostic (but in my experience, most of them eventually come around to realize they can’t 100% rule out the existence of god).

20 J January 2, 2016 at 10:09 pm

Responding to my last comment, I suppose it’s philosophical if these atheists who are not agnostic actually “know” there isn’t a god merely because they think they do. For example, does the victim’s mother, who was not a witness to the crime, really “know” the suspect is the killer even if she’s wrong and he isn’t? She’s convinced of it beyond any doubt and her level of certainty is equivalent to the suspect’s certainty of his own innocence, despite her lack of evidence. …But yeah, let’s avoid defining “knowing” here. 😛

21 Mark Connolly January 2, 2016 at 10:45 pm

@ J. This is true. Nobody ‘knows’ whether a god / gods exists or not. For me there are only 3 states that matter: belief, non belief and unsure. One thing that marks a critical difference between belief and non belief is that the non believer does not and perhaps should not try to convince believers that they are somehow wrong. It’s pointless. Surely it’s better to advocate for equality for and secularism is the common ground that we can all find.

22 abear January 2, 2016 at 10:48 pm

Well said Michael, the voice of reason versus the voice of post modernist nonsense!

23 Jeremy January 2, 2016 at 11:23 pm

Excellent and admirable words Michael Nugent. Your words could be summarised as a blueprint for lasting World peace. Happy New Year to you.

24 Gary January 3, 2016 at 1:31 am

Great discussion. As always rational atheists appeasing – but what else can we do.
3 states that matter yes but it reduces to 2. Either there is a god (or gods being totally inclusive) or there isn’t. These are the only two objective realities. What ever one believes is fine but it doesn’t remove the only two choices possible.
The evidence is in favour of atheists. Let’s keep pushing for that. Secularism – yes but let’s not drop the push for rational and reasoned thinking and debate.

25 Emily January 3, 2016 at 7:03 am

Michael, aren’t you doing to PZ here precisely what you accuse him of doing to others?

26 Jan Steen January 3, 2016 at 11:02 am

@Emily,

Really? Do you see Michael accusing PZ Myers of aiding criminals? Do you see him mocking PZ for his ethnicity or the colour of his skin? Do you see him smearing PZ ? Do you see him insulting PZ using language that you would expect from prison inmates (because people like PZ believe that ordinary people talk like that; and PZ wants you to believe that he is just an ordinary guy)?

Something else you won’t see Michael doing: Writing posts against the business practices of Amazon, and then openly buying expensive stuff from … Amazon, and urging his readers to buy stuff from … Amazon, because he makes a profit if people click through from his website and buy stuff from … Amazon. In other words, Michael is not a monumental hypocrite, unlike your hero, PZ Myers.

27 Dave Allen January 3, 2016 at 11:38 am

Emily, when people use the word “civil” do you think they mean being purely pleasant and uncritical and doing everything they can to butter other people up even if they think such people are odious and counterproductive to furthering discourse or the shared cause?

Because I don’t think that’s what most people mean by civility.

In regards to PZ the degree of incivility is characterised by quickly and regularly reaching for the worst sort of smears and defamation and aiming them at people, often with very little thought about whether or not they are deserved.

Pointing out that that is uncivil behaviour is not in and of itself uncivil.

28 Michael Nugent January 4, 2016 at 2:23 am

Thank you to everybody for the positive and critical feedback. I’m looking forward to a constructive new arbitrary twelve month period!

29 Michael Nugent January 4, 2016 at 3:00 am

#3 Mark, We have met with the Census Office about this. There is a census this year, but they are not changing any of the questions until the following year. They had already signed off on and started printing the forms before we met them. What we are now asking them to do for this year’s census is to change the instructions that they give to the enumerators about explaining the religion question, and also to provide more information to the public directly about how to interpret the question. We’ll post more about progress when or if it happens.

30 Michael Nugent January 4, 2016 at 3:04 am

#6 Tetenterre, I agree with in principle that we should not have to describe ourselves as atheists, in much the same spirit as the analogy with not collecting stamps. However, in reality, because religious beliefs have such an overt influence on our laws and are used to discriminate against us, it is important to self-identify as atheists while challenging those injustices. We hold a worldview that should not be significant in an ideal world, but that is significant in the world in which we live in. I’ve suggested before that if the world was run by people who believed that the post office created the universe, we would have organisations of non-stamp-collectors to challenge that.

31 Michael Nugent January 4, 2016 at 3:09 am

#10 Gary, How it can be achieved is the same as how any social or political change can be achieved – gradually, patiently, consistently until we reach critical mass, then something will happen that makes all of the work retrospectively useful. When i was campaigning against IRA and loyalist terrorism in Northern Ireland, many people had similar opinions – it will never end, they’re all mad up there etc., but it did end. And the Berlin Wall came down. And Apartheid ended in South Africa. We live in time when major changes can happen that would have seemed unthinkable a short time before.

32 Michael Nugent January 4, 2016 at 3:10 am

#14 Jan, I agree with you about the dangers of identity politics. I’ll write a post about it at some stage.

33 Michael Nugent January 4, 2016 at 3:14 am

#19 J, I think you can rule out specific versions of gods with the level of confidence that we typically describe as knowing, but we cannot rule out undefined possible versions that we may not be aware of. But then, if we are unaware of them or what their impact might be, their possible existence is irrelevant to our lives.

34 Michael Nugent January 4, 2016 at 3:20 am

#25 Emily, I have always tried to reason with PZ and to be charitable in my interpretation of his motives. What I am doing here is accurately describing his behaviour and its impact. Ultimately people who consistently engage in hateful and hurtful behaviour have learn that this behaviour has consequences, and I hope that PZ is now considering this.

35 John Greg January 4, 2016 at 5:32 am

Michael said:

“… I hope that PZ is now considering this.”

Well, Michael, I kinda doubt it. I don’t think PZ has the capacity/ability.

Seriously, although it will sound like it, I am not trying to play armchair psychologist here, but when I observe PZ’s online behaviour over the last several years, I ask myself how can anyone be that deeply, blatantly, and profoundly un-selfaware and not be living under some form or other of fairly serious delusion and/or intellectual and/or mental dysfunction.

Lack of selfawareness is a feature, not a bug, at FTB in general, but in the instance of PZ, and a handful of other blog hosts and commenters at FTB, the depth/degree of that lack of self-awareness, the totality of it, is astonishing, just astonishing.

I completely fail to understand this kind of psychology, this behaviour of ragingly, furiously, and with malice aforethought, accusing, as a bad thing, everyone with whom you disagree of the specific behaviours you yourself consistently enact, and then failing utterly to see the congruence. I just don’t get it.

36 Mark Connolly January 4, 2016 at 12:36 pm

@michael. Thanks for the reply. Great to hear there is some engagement on the census – vital. All the best for 2016!

37 Lancelot Gobbo January 4, 2016 at 11:04 pm

Vaguely surprised to find myself still here after another year. Once again Michael has outdone all of us in real world achievements, so once again I shall donate to Atheist Ireland rather than to any organisation on this side of the ocean (it seems we don’t do achievements, we concentrate on slander and mud-slinging).

38 Brive1987 January 5, 2016 at 2:42 am

PZ has shifted his interest from the now hardened targets identified in the Buzzfeed article to Harris and Hitchens.

His complete lack of analysis of the Paris attacks in favour of the Missou/Skepicon debacle followed by his unwavering focus on oppoents of Islamism paint him as the comedic poster boy of the regressive left.

PZ will always find a way to channel his bitterness at the fate that left him unremarked at the (now deserted) alter of popular New Atheism. It is a cruel fate for him to contemplate retirement in Morris Mn. I predict further tantrums of irrelevance.

39 J January 5, 2016 at 5:32 pm

@Michael Nugent

Yes, it’s the ‘the universe/multiverse is a simulation in an unknown god’s computer’ idea that can never be ruled out definitively which is responsible for that infinitesimal of doubt that prevents many of us from being exclusively atheist. This sort of god, the deist’s engineer, certainly is irrelevant to our lives. It’s certainly to rule out all specifically ‘revealed’ gods as purely the product of people.

For the sake of simplicity, I still recommend people identify as ‘atheists’. The agnostic/atheist clarification can follow if the other person is actually interested and not silenced from discomfort. 😛

40 The Order of the Cockscomb January 6, 2016 at 12:33 am

We’ve been opposing the fictionally grounded silencing word ‘islamophobia’ with two other terms: ‘infidelophobia’ (found in copious quantities in The Quran and Islam – and apparently among Jamesian religious pragmatists) and ‘islamumbling apologist’, which is what the Western media seems to be full of. Okay so the second one is a phrase, but we could add ‘faithopath’ to fill out the quota. Or perhaps ‘bullshit’.

41 Conan Maol January 6, 2016 at 1:15 am

Great piece, Michael. New year’s resolutions. I haven’t made any others!

42 Nialler January 10, 2016 at 4:58 pm

Wha’?

Why the hell do people need a list such as this?

Do your own thing, people (and, yes, I’m aware of the irony in that).

43 Shakir Mumtaz February 7, 2016 at 5:43 pm

WOW !!! What a waste of time! There is absolutely nothing new. It is simply a feeble effort to prop up Internet abusive, ignorant and mostly islamophobic Mob, to defend themselves against their retarded fancies. Surprisingly the author gave these the name of logic and science and what not. He pretended to be an intellectual, separating Islam and Muslim. This idiot did not realized that no matter what category you put a Muslim in (unless one is an ignorant atheist with Muslim name or some reformist,such as a recently surfaced Asra Noumani, who cashed on Pres OBAMA’s mosque visit, or a previously known Amjad Nawaz, who usually plays in the hands of British and other Govts and Atheists like Sam Harris) is integrated into Islam. It is not like US constitution which was forced bifurcated into Church and State. One can not tell a Muslim hey! i like you as a Muslim but i do not like your religion Islam. In this case he will look like an idiot to the Muslim. There is no such botched separation in Islam. Complete integration of a Muslim into Islam is essence of religion Islam; which exactly distinguish,and make it necessary in the face of its precedent religions. Atheism on the other hand is basically, as proven by many a scientific studies, an aberration, mental-sickness. In one study atheists suffering from “Misfit Syndrome” Islamophobia is real or else people like the author of this piece would not have taken pain to debunk it. What Muslims need to do however, is to not get deterred by Internet mob or Islamophobes and keep replying to their falsified, idiotic and hateful but mostly unintelligent, objections with knowledge and reason to persuade people towards the rationality and reason to be a Muslim. This is what i have embarked on. God will protect us and make us successful —Insha Allah.

44 Gary February 8, 2016 at 8:01 am

To all those atheists who think we can reason with ANYONE in Islam. I give you mr Mumtaz. When we think our secular vision is noble for the greater good we forget babaraism doesn’t care. Welcome to Islam. Pseudo intellectual religion made of Persian maxims, plaigerises from the OT and NT. Justifies murder in the name of a mythical being. Thinks it understands science . Come secularists and atheists – the list of the author whilst noble – misses what the barbarians actually think!

45 Shakir Mumtaz February 28, 2016 at 5:29 am

Read the following article to grasp the reality.

https://shakir2.wordpress.com/2015/08/22/scuttling-the-mental-capacity/

Those interested may also read on my blog ”’Reality of Atheists”

Only sensible/intelligent comments will be responded to. Thanks

46 Charming Charlie coupon May 11, 2017 at 2:28 am

Hi Rick. I like your Chinese proverb. You are right – it is a lovely sentiment. And I’m glad that you love your chosen field. I love my two chosen fields, even though they seem world’s apart. Thanks for your comment. I’m glad to hang out with a fellow square peg.

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