Monday, February 4, 2013

Religious Trolls

Some recent, but by no means unprecedented, activity on the University of Texas campus has sparked discussion regarding how to respond to people that present their fiery-brimstoney (and arguably hateful, that is another post for another day) opinions in an aggressive manner. I want to offer a view on how to approach this.

First, let’s cover some hard (and I hope obvious) limits on either end for what constitutes a reasonable level of confrontation. You should never touch these people, or their belongings, unless they leave you no other reasonable option. Do not take their signs. Do not push them. Do not throw your coffee at them. If they physically block your way, then I see no problem with the kind of physical contact you might normally have in navigating a crowded bar, concert, or hallway. And, of course, if they attack you, then you can defend yourself (though I don’t think I should have to point out unlikely it is that it will come to that). One exception might be that if they give you permission, you could do something nice like give them a hug.

On the other end of the confrontation spectrum, you should not shy away from saying what you think, or doing what you want around these people in a calm, reasoned manner, if your only concern is that you might offend them. These people obviously have no problem putting forth unpopular and largely offensive opinions in public. Again, I hope it’s obvious, but offending people that spend all day waving offensive signs should not be a major concern of ours.

Within these bounds, we need to decide what our goal is before we can come up with an effective response. This is a step that I feel is often neglected. Some people seem to be interested in “getting back at them” or just want to yell at them as a way to blow off steam and feel better about it. Surely we can think bigger than that. Other people think they should debate them and show how much smarter we are than they are. And, some people just want to make them look stupid. There are two things to notice before we choose a tactic: Everyone already thinks they look stupid, and a debate in this context is mainly on their terms (another topic for another time).

One of the best things that these people do for us is to offer a backdrop for us to display ourselves as the very calm, reasonable, open-minded, and caring people that we are. Other groups have offered hugs, encouragement, or scientific literature. Another possibility is to just be there, be friendly and calm, and label ourselves as an alternative to religious zealots. One more tact is to focus on using reason rather than dogma. We can offer a place to sit and discuss matters, with strictly enforced rules that everyone listen to each other, be polite, and avoid unjustified claims. These are, of course, all tactics we would use as a club.

If you are on your own, then how should you respond? If you do manage to engage them in an actual discussion, then just keep your cool, listen to them, and consider what they are saying. Obviously, you’re likely to disagree with them, but you never know until you listen. If other people are listening to you, your goal should be to convince the audience that your position is reasonable. If you are on your own, then you may be wasting time, but you could use it as an opportunity to practice for when you do have an audience, or maybe try your luck at convincing them that their methods are unlikely to be successful (it is unlikely that calling people whores will convince them to accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior).

If there are no discussions to be had, then you could try a miniature version of the suggestions for a group effort. Apart from that, I am at a loss. It might be best to just walk past, and ignore them. Perhaps someone else has an idea. The main thing is, whatever you do, keep your cool, and focus on this as an opportunity to show people what our worldview has to offer. We do not need to encourage any stereotypes of militant atheists.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Humanism and Atheism

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the most recent meeting for Texas Secular Humanists, but I was able to see pictures from the meeting. In one of the pictures, a member of the club was putting the finishing touches on a sign that listed “Cookies” and “God”, each with a check box, with only the “Cookies” box checked. It is clever and funny, and I hope that it was effective, but something about it bothered me when I saw it. I realize now that it is the strong emphasis on the lack of God in the humanist belief structure. I am going to make the case for de-emphasizing the link between secular humanism and atheism. I am not suggesting that there is no link, that it should be ignored, or that it is unimportant. The link is undeniable. Depending on what definitions you choose, secular humanists are necessarily a subset of atheists, and I would not say that any reasonable pair of definitions can completely separate the two. The atheistic aspects of secular humanism are important. The fact that we believe in taking moral responsibility for our own condition and that of our fellow humans is made much more meaningful by the fact that we believe we must do this on our own, and without the help of someone or something from outside the natural world. Still, there are important reasons why we should shift our focus so that we are humanists first, and secular second.

The first reason is mainly tactical. There is a large number of highly visible atheists and atheist organizations in the US. Some of them come across as assholes, some come across as insecure nerds, and some fight unpopular legal battles. There is not necessarily anything wrong with this; I could certainly be described as a nerd-asshole who supports legal battles to remove “In God We Trust” from US legal tender. These people and organizations are our close allies, and we need them. We do not need to distance ourselves from them. However, we do need to distinguish ourselves from them. Many people are tired of it of these issues and the way they are pushed, or they simply don't care about them. Many people are atheists, but think that merely being an atheist is not reason enough to form a club, pay dues to a national organization, or go to a conference. Secular Humanism, on the other hand, is about being a good person and also being a nonbeliever. This is something that will get the attention of people that never cared before. We need to demonstrate that we represent a unique segment of nonbelievers, so that those who did not care before have a reason to care.

The second reason for this emphasis is ideological. We should not need to constantly remind ourselves and others that we do not believe in God. Our primary characteristic, and the thing that really drives us and brings us together should not be a lack of belief; it should be a desire to work together to understand each other and the world around us so we can make the world a better place. The fact that we do not believe in God should only factor in when others’ beliefs somehow factor into the picture. When we reach out to other nonbelievers and ask them to join us, it is not because we think it’s cool to be atheists, it is because they are likely to empathize with us and help us form a strong community, and because they may need help navigating the sometimes difficult social and political landscape that we all encounter as a misunderstood minority. We do not gain anything by “practicing” atheism, if that means anything. What we can practice and what we should try to spread around is humanism. If we want to live in a world in which being a nonbeliever is unremarkable, we should start acting like it.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Church or Jail?

Not really related to the club, but I thought this was an interesting bit of information.

Church or jail?

Basically, sweet ol' Alabama is trying to pass a law where first time, non-violent offenders could chose to go to church instead of serving a prison

"The Restore Our Community program, called Operation ROC, was developed for those convicted of first-time misdemeanors, offering them the opportunity to either attend church once a week for a year and answer questions about the services, or go to jail and pay a fine. Right away, the program sparked controversy."

Separation of church and state indeed.
The law is under review at the moment because it sparked such controversy. Huh.. wonder why.

Monday, September 5, 2011


Hello everyone!

We have our first meeting in our regular location tomorrow evening:

Tuesday September 6th at 7pm

RLM 6.116

RLM (Robert Lee Moore building) is on the southeast corner of Dean Keeton and Speedway. It is tall. When you're heading for the 6th floor, keep in mind that the 4th floor is the ground floor.

EDIT: This will be our time and location every week!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Why Humanism?

(credit: Atheist Cartoons)
    A common question that I am asked when I tell people about Texas Secular Humanists is why we include humanism in our name, rather than just secularism or atheism. Although there are more practical reasons for this, relating to recruiting and public relations, I would like to address the less pragmatic, more philosophical reasons for this.
    There is a tendency, when groups of people unite around secularism, atheism, or skepticism, to focus their efforts and discussions on pushing back against the religious. When this is done properly, it can be beneficial for  both parties. It is true that a large portion of the population holds false beliefs that sometimes cause them to make poor decisions that have an adverse affect on other people. It stands to reason that, if there is anything that we, as the secular community, can do to combat these beliefs and their harmful consequences without causing additional undue harm, we have some moral responsibility to do so. The trouble with this is that it does little to address our responsibilities, apart from keeping our worldviews and belief systems epistemically robust, and helping others to do so themselves.
Even when it is not aggressive or unfriendly, this type of behavior places an emphasis on what everyone else is doing wrong, or falsely believes, or misunderstands about the secular world. It does not address what we, as the clear thinking moral agents we claim to be, ought to do ourselves. It does not address what other moral responsibilities we may have that are not related to the intellectual mistakes or dogmatically held beliefs of others. The attitude often seems to be that most other people are wrong, and need help learning the truth so that they can stop voting for the wrong political candidates, teaching nonsense to their kids, and wasting their time praying for a cure to cancer.
I do not mean to suggest that these activities are something that secular organizations should not undertake, so long as they are well planned and executed in a way that properly accounts for the others’ points of view and reasons for believing what they believe. After all, it is unlikely that anyone else is going to do it. However, before we can begin hold others accountable for their beliefs and practices, we should take full responsibility and full account of our own. It is not sufficient to have a logically consistent set of beliefs that are in agreement with current scientific models. It is not enough to simply note that we are not partaking in the same harmful activities and habits of thought as the theistic masses to which we are trying to make an appeal. We need to first attend to our own moral obligations. We need to ask ourselves what the best use of resources is, for an organization such as ours. We need to ask ourselves what we ought to do, now that we claim to have freed ourselves from the shackles of bronze-age superstition.
This is why we call ourselves humanists. We stand for much more than rational worldviews, the rejection of religious dogma, and notifying others of the flaws in their ontological and ethical beliefs. We are members of the thoughtful, creative, empathetic, and planet-dominating species called humans. It is time to stop pointing our fingers at each other for being wrong, and start using our large brains and opposable thumbs to solve the real problems facing humanity.

-Rick K

“The grand victories of the future must be won by humanity, and by humanity alone”
-Robert Ingersoll

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Pizza in the Park

We've been telling people that there is a barbecue on Sunday. Unfortunately, there is a burn ban in effect, so we can grill anything. Fortunately, we have an alternative plan! We'll just have pizza instead.

Please join us at Eastwoods Park at 1pm on Sunday for pizza, sodas, and perhaps some fun with a frisbee or a soccer ball.

What you should bring:
  • A few dollars to help pay for the pizza
  • Frisbees, soccer balls, basketballs, or whatever
  • A big friendly smile!
If you are going to attend, or might attend, please use exactly one method to RSVP (and say whether you're a yes or a maybe):
I hope to see you on Sunday!

Party on the Plaza!

Thanks to everyone who visited us at Party on the Plaza today. We were pleased and a bit surprised by the enthusiasm with which we were received as a new(ish) organization on campus. We met quite a few students, had some interesting discussions, and even found some good opportunities for dialogue and collaboration with different groups.

Here is a picture of (left to right) Jarett, Me, and Scott at our table.