Atheist Terrorism! Hit the Deck!

By now, everyone has probably heard about the tragic events in Chapel Hill that unfolded just two days ago.  It should go without saying that these killings were an act of pure barbarism, and my empathy is with the family and friends of the three people gunned down in cold blood.  Of course, given today’s highly polarized climate, I feel compelled to make that clear.

Now.

I’ve been fascinated by the transformation of this story over the past day.  As of yesterday morning, this was a tragic murder, but nothing more.  As of last night, it’s become a potential hate crime, with media outlets competing with one another to leap on what is apparently the first atheist hate crime ever committed.  What fascinates me is how easily this conclusion was drawn by a media that is often reticent to claim a suicide bomber who screams, “Allahu Akbar,” before killing themselves and 30 others as a religiously-motivated killer.  Apparently, the mere fact that the victims were Muslim and the killer was atheist is enough to support the claim of a hate crime here, despite the complete dearth of evidence to suggest that.  But let’s go in order by addressing the claims being made, then we’ll wrap it up by discussing why everyone’s so eager to get on this bandwagon.

The Western media is refusing to cover this as a hate crime because of their bias

This is an easy one to start with, because it’s morbidly hilarious.  Almost every mainstream media outlet in the West is wagging their fingers at the mainstream media (as though they aren’t part of it) and claiming that no one is talking about the potential hate crime.  So far, Al Jazeera America, the Washington Post, the New York Times, CNN, and pretty much every other outlet is covering this as a potential hate crime.  Even Fox News is covering it as a potential hate crime (though I’ll grant that they’re definitely not running this as a top story).  At this point, I’m starting to wonder if I’ve been confused about the definition of “mainstream media” my whole life.

This was clearly a hate crime

Well, not really.  If it was, it is all the more abhorrent.  But currently, everyone who’s actually involved with the case has said that it appears to be the result of a long-running dispute over parking spaces and other bad-neighbor behavior.  There’s nothing to suggest a hate crime, aside from the fact that the victims were Muslims and the killer an outspoken atheist.  Speaking of the latter…

This was clearly motivated by atheism

Again, not really.  More evidence may turn up in the coming days, but nothing that’s being reported actually points to this killing having anything to do with atheism.  The strongest correlation any media outlet has drawn was a statement from Hicks’ Facebook page:

Praying is pointless, useless, narcissistic, arrogant, and lazy; just like the imaginary god you pray to.

Is his statement harsh?  Of course.  Is it an unpopular opinion?  Very.  Does it in any way point to a desire to harm others, never mind a specific desire to harm Muslims?  Not even a little bit.

In fact, there’s nothing in Hicks’ atheist rhetoric to suggest that he was specifically anti-Islam.  Most of his posts are about Abrahamic religions in general.  And none of those posts incite violence.  When combined with the constant pictures and rhetoric about guns, it certainly paints the portrait of an extremely angry, potentially violent man.  But it doesn’t show an anti-Arab bigot.

Again, evidence may be uncovered in the coming days that more clearly points to Hicks’ atheism being the primary motivation in this case.  If that happens, I will be extremely saddened and absolutely will want atheists (insofar as we have an atheist community) to examine our rhetoric and see what kind of changes are needed.  But at present, there’s nothing to suggest that this crime was motivated by atheism.

Terrorism?

This is not a claim being circulated by most major outlets, but multiple opinion pieces are demanding to know why this isn’t being labeled as atheist terrorism.  After all, we were labeling the Charlie Hebdo attacks as terrorism within minutes of their being reported.  Doesn’t that show bias?

Actually, no.  It shows that most people understand the definition of terrorism.  Terrorism is the use of violence (or the threat of violence) in order to incite fear in a group of people, generally in order to achieve a larger goal.

The Charlie Hebdo killings were quite clearly an act of terrorism.  An organized group of Muslims killed people who drew cartoons about Mohammed, in order to make others afraid of doing the same thing and stop people from drawing those cartoons.  There’s a reason I italicized that last part.  If the people in that case had simply killed those cartoonists because they offended someone’s religious beliefs, then it would not be classified as terrorism.  But the act itself was not the end goal; the terror it inspired was.

Now, let’s look at the killings in Chapel Hill.  Unless we uncover a manifesto from Craig Hicks that tells us he was trying to make all Muslims afraid of taking his parking space, then there’s nothing to support this as a terrorist act.  At this point, Hicks’ ultimate goal appears to have been killing three people he didn’t like.  As pointed out, there’s little evidence to suggest that he was motivated by anything other than a personal vendetta, and there’s absolutely nothing to indicate that he intended this action to send a message to any larger community of people.

So why is this narrative so exciting?

It seems fairly clear that the media (and a good chunk of the public) are perversely thrilled at the idea of a hate crime inspired by atheism.  And it’s fairly easy to understand why. It’s a great narrative that finally gets to spit in the face of all those arrogant atheists who keep claiming that no one ever killed in the name of atheism.

Finally, we can point to this and tell atheists how wrong they were for saying that a lack of belief in a god has never been the prime motivator for atrocity.  At last, they’ll be silenced, because now, one of their own has committed a hate crime.  Suck on that, Dawkins.

The fact remains that atheists are the least-trusted group in America.  Anyone confused on this point can feel free to look up the multiple studies that have been done on the subject.  Or you can just look to the fact that Obama is the first president to acknowledge atheism as a valid belief system during this year’s Prayer Breakfast.  Or that far fewer people would vote for an atheist to be president than would vote for a female, gay, or Muslim one.  And one of the most hated atheist talking points is that there’s never been a killing in the name of atheism, because it’s never really been a point that could be refuted well.

So it’s perfectly understandable that the hate crime narrative is popular.  It grabs hold of the religious fervor surrounding this issue and pulls down a group of people who are often viewed as smug or arrogant.  But the problem is that the hate crime narrative, at this point in time, isn’t supported by any of the evidence.

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Rage of Consent

I like to classify myself as a feminist, in that I believe women should be given equal treatment in the workplace, socially, etc.  Those views include the belief that rape is a horrific crime, street harassment isn’t OK, and that anyone who uses the hashtag #notallmen should be clocked over the head with a philosophy primer.  But (shock and consternation!) sometimes people who label themselves as feminist can go a wee bit too far, making it easier for misinformed people to smear the entire philosophy based on the cyber-ramblings of a few idiots.  Enter Meghan Murphy.

Now, not being Canadian, I hadn’t really heard of Jian Ghomeshi until this week.  I believe he’s some type of TV personality over there, and he’s just lost his job.  I only know about the last bit because Mr. Ghomeshi decided to get in front of a wave of bad PR this week by making this Facebook post.  The internet collectively jumped on it, picking apart every detail in an effort to determine whether this was an innocent man trying to clear his good name or a creepy rapist trying to cover up his actions.  Then, Ms. Murphy presented us with this gem.

Before getting to the horribly-reasoned mess that is her article, I first want to make a few things clear.  I don’t know what happened between Jian Ghomeshi and any of his lovers.  I don’t know whether there was consent involved in any of these cases.  What I do know is that no criminal or civil charges have been filed by any of the women who are accusing him of this.  I also know that this doesn’t make their charges any less legitimate, but it’s important to be aware that this is entirely a battle over public image.  It’s also important to note that (at least at this point), there is apparently such a lack of evidence to support charges that civil proceedings can’t even be initiated.  Which simply means that this will boil down to he-said-she-said.

But we can put all that aside, because Ms. Murphy is arguing something entirely different.  Her argument is that it doesn’t matter whether these women consented to sex.

Let me repeat that: her argument is that it doesn’t matter whether these women consented to sex.

And why doesn’t it matter?  Well, because apparently there is an objective standard by which we can all judge sexual activity, and any sex that involves what Ms. Murphy deems to be “violence against women” cannot be consensual.  Of course, what she is referring to is any sex where a woman takes on a submissive role.  Once that happens, apparently women lose their capacity to consent, because Meghan Murphy has determined that the type of sex they are having isn’t good for women.

Let’s be clear about fetishes: everyone has them.  Some people have minor kinks (feet, blindfolds, feathers, etc.), and some people have major ones (extreme bondage, diapers, electrodes, etc.).  And pretty much everyone has a sexual leaning towards dominance or submission that is completely unrelated to gender.

Some men prefer to be dominant; some prefer to be submissive.  Some women prefer to be dominant; some prefer to be submissive.  And almost everyone has a preference, even if it’s not extreme enough to always come in to play in the bedroom.

Speaking of the bedroom: Ms. Murphy argues against it being a private space in situations where men are playing a physically dominant role, because apparently women who prefer to be submissive are insane.  I mean, how could they possibly enjoy that?  Ms. Murphy is simply looking after these poor, abused victims of sex that they didn’t know enough about to consent to.

I don’t particularly understand men who like to be chained to the wall, put in a gimp mask and prevented from orgasming.  But some do.  Is it violent?  Yep.  Is it consensual?  You betcha.  But where’s Ms. Murphy’s outrage about the thriving dominatrix community that engages in this type of rough play?

Views like the ones expressed in this article are extremely problematic.  They assume that women don’t have the capacity to consent to sex that someone else finds degrading.  They assume that there is some objective standard by which we can determine whether consensual rough sex crosses a line.  And they assume that any type of relationship deemed “creepy” by any chunk of the public is inherently non-consensual.

Again, no one knows exactly what happened in this case, except for Jian Ghomeshi and the women who are alleging the abuse.  But what’s damn sure is that if the sex was consensual, then it was not abuse.  The definition of consent doesn’t change to suit individual preferences.

#hashtagskillbraincells

The internet is my shepherd, I shall not want.  For lo, when I was thinking, “Gee, I really need to write something, but I can’t find anything worth a full article,” the internet hath provided for me.  Yea, I shall walk in the sheltering arms of the internet, and I shall fear no writer’s block.  For the internet hath given me a bounty of idiocy to cover with this newly discovered hashtag: #pornkillslove.

Now, I wasn’t aware that this has apparently been a thing for a few months, due to this blog.  But now I’m fully aware, and I’m just amazed.  Amazed by the amount of misinformation that people are willing to spread on the internet, but more importantly, amazed by how absolutely awful ignorance is.

First, let’s examine this site’s claims.  As you may have guessed, they center around the notion that porn is bad.  Well, to be fair to this site’s designers, they center around the notion that porn is evil.  And addictive.  Oh, and it ruins relationships.  Because trust me, you didn’t do anything to wreck your marriage; it was all those evil videos doing it for you.

This new “movement” is entirely based on the claim that porn is addictive.  So let’s get a few things straight about what these people mean by that.  Thanks to America’s hypersensitivity to addiction, the very use of the word conjures up some extremely strong images, many of them having to do with drug addicts in the throes of a horrific detox, their bodies ravaged by the harmful effects of whatever they’ve been pumping in their systems.

But let’s hold on a moment, because there are two kinds of addiction, and sites like this are always keen to gloss over that point.  There are physical addictions, like addictions to alcohol, methamphetamine, and many other chemicals (not marijuana).  And then there are psychological addictions, like addictions to gambling, or pretty much anything else you can name.  And that’s the problem.  One can claim that anything causes psychological addiction, because technically, anything can.  So long as you’re activating pleasure centers in your brain with an activity, the activity can be considered psychologically addictive.

Now, I’m not saying that psychological addictions are somehow fabricated, due to their mental nature.  Quite the opposite.  But there’s a fundamental difference between a physical and psychological addiction that companies like FTND are relying on you to not know.  If I’m a gambling addict, and I quit gambling, I’ll probably feel like hell.  But if I’m an alcoholic, and I quit drinking, I may die.  That’s a pretty stark difference.

And we’re obsessed with addiction, to the point that we’ve made social outcasts out of anyone we deem to have one.  Enjoy lots of sex?  You’re a sex addict.  Enjoy online games?  You’re an MMO addict.  Enjoy looking at pictures or videos of naked people online?  Porn addict.

And why would anyone want to negatively label people who are receiving pleasure from something?  Because apparently we can’t get over our puritanical roots long enough to realize that pleasure isn’t inherently bad.  Of course, one might note that no support group meeting would be complete without coffee, donuts, and cigarettes, but let’s focus on harmful addictions, right?  (Wink, wink.  Nudge, nudge.)

There really don’t need to be any studies showing that porn is addictive.  Anything can be addictive, especially if you’re a person with an addictive personality.  What these people hinge their entire argument on is that this addiction is harmful, in that (according to them) it will destroy relationships and lead to sexually deviant (and yes, criminal) behavior.  And that’s where they get you, because they rely on you to not realize that amidst all the scientific studies about the addictive properties of porn, there isn’t a single peer-reviewed study that documents its harmful effects.  They’re relying on your negative associations with the word addiction to cloud your judgment, and I’ve got to admit, it’s a fantastic strategy.

So here are some of the major misconceptions about pornography that they’re going to try and get you to implicitly believe through some very suggestive writing:

Porn kills your sex drive.
This hasn’t been documented in any substantive way, but if Dan Savage’s column is any indication, porn does the complete opposite for many people.  Some people may want to look away right now, but here’s a dirty little secret: people masturbate.  People masturbate when they’re single.  They masturbate when they’re in committed relationships.  They masturbate all the damn time.  And yet, my Facebook wall is still full of pictures of people’s terrible children [Don’t worry, I’m not talking about your kids, person who’s reading this.  Your kids are wonderful.]
Porn is simply looking at something in order to aid masturbation.  Otherwise, you’re going to be using your own imagination as an aid.  And are you really going to claim that your mind is less dirty than everything that’s on the web?

Porn-using behavior escalates
This is a nice, plain, misleading sentence, because it uses a fundamentally true statement (addictive behavior often escalates in the pursuit of a greater high) to suggest a fundamentally untrue implication (porn “addicts” will eventually not be able to achieve arousal without viewing or participating in increasingly “extreme” scenarios).  First of all, both of these statements ignore the fact that not everyone has an addictive personality.  I know from past experience that I don’t (or to the extent that I do, it’s very minor).  So I can go to a bar and just have a drink.  An alcoholic can’t.  That’s because our brain chemistry is fundamentally different.  One of us has an addictive personality.
But this also ignores the fact that there are no facts supporting that implication.  Even if we accept the premise that addicts seek out a greater high every time they go out, that simply means that a porn addict will look at porn with greater frequency.  There is no scientific evidence to support the notion that an adult can develop a brand new set of fetishes based entirely on porn consumption.  Nor is there any evidence that fetishes are harmful, but let’s face it, these people think that any extra-marital sexual desire is bad (more on that later).

Porn destroys relationships
Again, this statement isn’t based on scientific evidence.  It’s solely based on the anecdotes provided by spurned wives (again, we’ll get in to why these people are obsessed with straight, married relationships).  As a divorcee, I can testify to how easy it is to place the blame for a failed marriage on an external source.  It’s a hell of a lot easier than blaming your partner or, Odin forbid, yourself.
So if your sex life was failing, look for something else to blame.  It couldn’t be that pervasive and repressive attitudes about sex were having a strong effect on you and your partner.  It couldn’t be that a lack of open communication about your sex life created a psychological strain on both of you.  The internet’s to blame.

Now, as you may have noticed, I’ve started to get a little more specific about the people running this thing, and believe me, it took quite some effort to be confident in my specifics.  Although, I wasn’t surprised by the amount of effort it took once I confirmed my suspicions.

When I looked at the FTND site, I couldn’t help but think, “Oh boy, I bet this is another conservative Christian group out to shame people for their sexual desires and preferences.”  But after doing a lot of digging on the site, I couldn’t find a single religious reference.  In fact, I found specific notes on their school presentations (yep, they do this in schools) that mentioned how there was no religion involved.  And I got this tiny tickling feeling on the back of my neck: Mormons.

If you haven’t spent any significant time around the LDS community, you’re probably wondering why that would be my first instinct.  Mormons are absolute geniuses when it comes to repackaging religious ideas as secular ones.  And once I started to re-examine the site, I noticed the predominance of good-looking white people, imagery that somehow manages to leave out homosexual relationships in any form, hip language, and a now-conspicuous lack of religious rhetoric in a topic that is usually dominated by it.  So I went digging.

It took a little bit, but I finally found my smoking gun.  I knew that the arguments on this site sounded eerily familiar.  And I knew that the whole ad campaign looked even more eerily familiar.  I’d heard these things in Utah.  And I’d seen these advertising strategies when the LDS church bankrolled Proposition 8 in California.

But why would Mormons go to such great lengths to hide their involvement in this?  Because even without the massive persecution complex that many devout LDS followers have, church members understand that no one likes them that much.  The left doesn’t like them due to their insanely conservative social views.  The conservative Christians don’t like them, because they view Mormons as a cult.  So Mormons have learned that the only way to reach a wider audience is to appear to be making secular arguments.  And they’re damn good at it.

Porn has been around forever.  It doesn’t destroy relationships.  It doesn’t lead to “deviant” behavior.  It doesn’t make you an addict.  It doesn’t make you a bad person.

Do you like looking at porn?  Great.  Do you not like looking at porn?  Great.  The only reason that any of your preferences will affect your love life is if you aren’t open and honest with your partner about them.

And remember: the internet is for porn. (If you weren’t expecting this link at the end, I have lost a little respect for you.)

Astro-Survival Strategies

Folks, I don’t need to tell you that we’re living in precarious times.  That’s right.  Mercury is in retrograde.  Planes are falling from the skies, computers are crashing, and my ex just won’t return my late-night text messages.  Clearly, the planets are conspiring against us.

But Mercury is only one planet.  Read on to find out how other celestial bodies are trying to fuck up your life.

Saturn is in the π house- Hold on to your horses, because Saturn is in the house of a never-ending, non-repeating decimal.  If you don’t have horses, you should be fine.

Virgo ascending- Virgo, as we all know, is the virgin.  So when she’s ascending, everyone magically gets their virginity back.  Go crazy.  Live a little.  Put on a ball gag and dress up like a over-large baby.  For the next month, you’re as pure as the fresh-driven snow, no matter what kind of freaky stuff you do.

Mars is in a deep depression- Why won’t you just take a moment out of your life to think about someone else, you insufferable jerk?  Mars is having a really tough time right now, and you won’t even talk to them.  I guess your life is really fucking important.  Asshole.

Uranus expanding- People probably aren’t going to be as amused by your juvenile humor as you’d like.  Maybe think twice before making a dumbass Uranus joke.

Dawning of the Age of Aquarius- A bunch of hippies are about to– oh shit, it’s too late.  Yep, they’re all naked.  Well, that was worth the price of admission.

Orion is pissed off- Seriously, he’s got to be one of the most recognizable constellations, but he doesn’t get a month?  Whatever, losers.  He doesn’t need a month.  Even if fucking Cancer got one.

That little bright spot keeps getting brighter- Maybe it’s time to think about calling Bruce Willis.  Yeah, let me just– dammit, my phone doesn’t work because fucking Mercury is in retrograde.

Hopefully this has made everyone a little more aware of just how badly the universe is trying to fuck you up.  So remember, every time something bad happens, there’s no way it was your fault.  It’s just a bunch of planets and stars that have nothing better to do than fuck with humans.

Serious (Sirius) side note: Constellations are man-made, and Mercury doesn’t give a shit about your iPhone.  If you’re really interested in the universe, astronomy is far more interesting than astrology could ever be.  And Neil deGrasse Tyson will tell you all kinds of interesting things for free.

I Guess Ben Affleck is Still a Decent Director

This post is fairly contextual, so I guess I should start with some context:

It all started when a group at Yale invited Ayaan Hirsi Ali to speak on Islam.  Ms. Hirsi Ali was raised as a Muslim in Somalia, which, somewhat predictably, has led her to have some pretty harsh words for Islam on the subject of women’s rights.  There’s a whole lot more to her life, but in this abridged biography, let’s just say that some of her comments have been strong enough to get her banned from a number of US institutions for being “Islamophobic” (more on that word later).

The Muslim Students’ Association (along with a veritable alphabet soup of other campus groups) got upset and wrote this letter.  Yale responded by allowing her to make a speech on campus.  And then Bill Maher weighed in on the debate, drawing national attention with his comments on Muslim theocracies.  Ben Affleck went on Maher’s show and called both Maher and fellow guest Sam Harris “racist” for their comments about Islam.  Reza Aslan went on CNN to criticize Maher’s “facile” views on Islam.  And then a couple of ex-Muslims wrote an article explaining why Aslan is an extremely disingenuous debater when it comes to matters of Muslim faith.

Phew.  That was a lot.  Feel free to peruse those articles as you like.  If you’re not in the mood to read a lot, the last article kind of sums everything up, as it’s the most recent one of the bunch.

But anyway, now that we’ve caught up to today, the overwhelming issue here is that liberals in America need to grow the fuck up when it comes to Islam.  I get that most Muslims in America are going to vote Democrat when given the choice, but that doesn’t mean that Islam is untouchable.  It especially doesn’t mean that criticism of an extremely problematic religion is racist, much less “Islamophobic”, which is possibly the most idiotically overused term in this whole debate.

The general attitude of American liberals toward talking about Islam in any kind of critical terms can be summed up in a paraphrased tweet that has been mentioned again and again by Muslim apologists.  In a nutshell, Americans can’t criticize Islam for the actions of a few fundamentalists, because we don’t judge Christianity based on the actions of groups like the Westboro Baptist Church.

Well, first of all, we do that all the fucking time.  American liberals are more than happy to call out the Christian Right on their bullshit, and they should be doing it more often.  Taking a soft line on Christian fundamentalism has reintroduced creationism in science classrooms across America.  Three cheers for a completely distorted definition of tolerance!

But speaking of a distorted definition of tolerance, that same group of people who will scream bloody murder over the Hobby Lobby decision (which, again, they should) are astonishingly silent about the medieval mentalities exhibited in a disturbingly large portion of the Muslim world.  Worse than that, they attack people who dare mention these issues as symptomatic of larger problems with Islam as a religion.  And why?  Because apparently when you can get Americans to view you religion as a racial group, you gain protected status.

Now, let’s be very clear here.  I am absolutely a critic of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, [insert faith-based religion here], because I strongly believe that these belief systems have been a force for evil in the world rather than good.  Feel free to debate me on that, but please also do me the courtesy of not calling me a bigot for criticizing people’s freely chosen beliefs.

Note: I am fully aware that there are actual bigots who will twist their uneducated views on Islam in to racial bias against all people with darker skin.  But let’s be frank: those people are just looking for a reason to hate people with darker skin.  They just have an easier time using the word “Islamic” than they do “not-black-but-still-dark-enough-to-scare-me”.

However, there are certain religious beliefs that are more outlandish or more harmful than others.  We can somewhat objectively say that Mormon beliefs regarding the settling of America by white, Jewish Egyptians are more ridiculous than Catholic beliefs regarding Mary, which are in turn more ridiculous than the Buddhist adherence to the Eightfold Path.  Similarly, I can say that Christian beliefs that seek to dehumanize LGBT people are more harmful than Christian beliefs to love thy neighbor (Weird that those two philosophies come from the same faith, huh?).

So that’s why I feel comfortable saying that Islam is a religion that promotes violence and oppression.  The Qu’ran (pick your English spelling) has hundreds of passages devoted to the slaying of infidels in the pursuit of establishing the House of Islam the whole world over.  And it has plenty of passages deliberately allowing for or promoting the subjugation of women.  Now, just like halfway-intelligent Christians can understand that some of the more unsavory parts of the Bible should be taken as historical insights rather than divine commands, halfway-intelligent Muslims can do the same thing with problematic passages in the Qu’ran.  The issue is that plenty of people don’t.  And the bigger issue is that plenty of those people are in charge of governments.

So again, let me just stress that I don’t find these beliefs any less problematic than Biblical notions of (oh, just for example) womanhood, slavery, violence, etc.  I do, however, find their modern-day implementation much more problematic.  Believe me, if there are any Christian theocracies getting to this level (Uganda’s getting close), I have some strong words for them.  But as these atrocities are happening in the Muslim world, that’s where my concern and anger are directed.

See, because I don’t live in the Middle Ages, I find the stoning of women to be barbaric.  I find killing infidels to be barbaric.  I find formally-declared religious death threats against cartoonists to be barbaric.  I find any “holy” text that would not only sanction, but encourage these kinds of actions to be unacceptable in any kind of civilized global society.

And let’s be even more clear: people are dying.  Lots of people are dying.  People are being oppressed in ways that make American complaints about racial profiling and sexual harassment seem like pebbles next to boulders.  Not that those issues aren’t important, but I think we can agree that risking death to attend school is a tiny bit more serious than having your ass grabbed.

And the fact that not all Muslims adhere to these kinds of fundamentalists beliefs is not enough.  Clearly, enough Muslims do that they have nations centered around these horrific practices.  One might as well respond to all these arguments with a #notallMuslims hashtag.  Yes, it’s that ridiculous.

These comments are not “Islamophobic”, any more than any of my other comments are “Christophobic”.  And yet people are being shouted down for daring to criticize the antiquated and backward belief system of millions of people, and that’s being hailed as brave.

Rational people across the world have a moral duty to fight against oppression and violence, especially when that oppression is inspired by adherence to an old book.  Excluding Islam from religious criticism due to fears of being labeled as racist or bigoted is cowardice.  No religion gets special protections when it comes to committing atrocities.

And if anyone wants to declare a fatwa on me, you can find me at the following address: 3701 SW 12th St, Topeka, KS 66604.  Happy hunting!

Truth: Magical Thinking is Bad

Jezebel has always been a really hit-or-miss site for me.  Sometimes they post brilliant, thoughtful, often-feminist critiques of society, etc.  Sometimes.  The rest of the content seems to be devoted to celebrity gossip, ridiculously hyperbolic taglines, and fluff journalism.  The article I came across today falls in to that third category.

*Side note: anyone else think that it’s insanely hypocritical for a site that posts lots of opinion articles about the sexist objectification of women to also post articles about Taylor Swift’s dating habits and Jennifer Lopez’s ass?

Back to business.  Here’s the Jezebel article that got me a little riled up today: “Truth: Everyone Believes in at Least One Crazy Thing”.

I know that most people don’t want to read a whole two articles worth of stuff, so don’t worry, I’ll quote the most relevant bits here.  Suffice it to say, you can probably guess what most of the content of the article is from the title.  After all, you can only expand so much on the oh-so-thoughtful generalization that everyone believes in something crazy.  But let’s unpack what the author is really arguing for, because by the time we get past the benign opening statement, she’s actually making an extremely dangerous point.

First, I’ll start with my only point of agreement: Los Angeles has a higher frequency of idiots/nutjobs/Scientologists than the rest of the country.  Having spent some quality time in the LA, I can confidently say that the author is absolutely right.  There are more supposed psychics, remote viewers, astrologists, prophets, LoA practitioners, cultists, Scientologists, and vegans** in LA than in almost any other area of the country.

*Additional side note: the article cites “Overheard in LA”, which is hilarious and 100% accurate.  You should read it.

Why does LA have more of these people than other places?  It’s anyone’s guess.  But as I said, this is where my agreement with Ms. Moore ends.

She moves on from amusing anecdotes about the insane shit people say to relative strangers in LA to the assertion that “everyone believes at least one crazy thing.”  Hey, there’s that article title again.  Nifty.  It’s like she practically didn’t have to write anything else.  Her examples from her friends are as follows:

Mine is probably the achingly sincere hope that I will get to time travel or win the lottery

Still want to believe in “wishes”

I definitely want to believe in metaphysics

I believe in the presence of the Yeti

So let’s first start by acknowledging that only one of these is a crazy belief: the last bit about believing in the Yeti (in spite of the overwhelming lack of scientific evidence to support its existence).  The other three aren’t beliefs.  They are desires.

Hoping that you’ll get to time travel, no matter how sincere your hope is, is not a belief in the current existence of a viable time machine.  Wanting to believe in wishes isn’t the same as believing that if you think about a red bike hard enough, you’ll get one (For more on that, read The Secret.  Actually, don’t.  It’s terrible.).  Definitely wanting to believe in metaphysics is not actually a fantastical belief, as metaphysics is a wide school of philosophy, but assuming that the speaker was talking about the bullshit-brand of metaphysics practiced by New Age “healers” across the nation, wanting to believe in it still isn’t the same as actually believing it.

And that’s a big distinction, because as much as I might want to believe that thinking really hard about piles of cash will make them manifest in my life, I know that the Law of Attraction is a lie, made up by opportunists who have figured out yet another way to separate gullible people from their money.  I don’t actually have a crazy belief in the Law of Attraction.  I just wish it were true while I continue to do a variety of interesting-yet-often-soul-sucking day jobs to pay the rent.

Now, ignoring the author’s big gap in logic there, let’s get to the worst assertion in the article: “Magical thinking is silly, childish, wishful and—most importantly—harmless.”  I would be remiss in not noting that she immediately clarifies this statement:

And of course there’s a difference between the belief that a room must be cleansed of bad energy versus, say, a belief that vaccinating your children will kill them. Don’t throw me in with the real crazies, dig?

Well, that’s a pretty tall order.  Even Ms. Moore notes that a strong delineation is nearly impossible, because how can you determine which magical beliefs will lead to harm?  After all, isn’t pretending to talk to someone’s dead mother (or honestly believing you can) clearly less harmful than not vaccinating your children?  Well, yes and no.

Obviously, in the above scenario, there’s an immediate, physical danger to the unvaccinated child (not to mention all the children surrounding that child).  On the other hand, there’s no immediate, physical danger to the grief-stricken person being offered false solace.  Sure, any psychologist worth their salt would tell you that it’s extremely detrimental to engage a grieving person in a way that prevents them from dealing with the reality of death.  Even so, it’s hard to compare that to a potential outbreak of measles/dead children.

So why do I still think that the author is wrong in her assertion that her kind of benign magical thinking isn’t dangerous?  Because it’s the exact same method of thought being applied in both cases.  Even ignoring people’s general tendency toward confirmation bias, if one starts engaging in magical thinking (a firm belief in something that has been disproven or that has absolutely no evidence to back it up) about one subject, they are training their brain to think that way about anything.

Mentally, what’s the difference between believing that you had a past life as Beatrix Potter and believing that vaccines cause autism?  Your brain is engaging in the same kind of irrational thought process in order to arrive at both beliefs.***

And Ms. Moore goes on to claim that, “There is a significant, and harmless, middle ground: reasonable, science-supporting people who believe in research and critical thinking and skepticism, but still give magic a bit of a chance.”  Those people already exist: they’re called skeptics.  Or scientists.  Or rational people.

Science doesn’t just leave room for “magic”, it explains it.  Ms. Moore, and others like her, seem to think that the act of explaining something renders it unexceptional and boring.  That couldn’t be further from the truth.  And any good scientist approaches an outlandish claim with a burning desire for it to be true.  Because how cool would it be to prove that there really are unicorns?  How amazing would it be to discover actual evidence of telepathy?  The only difference is that rational people accept that if it can’t be proven, then it isn’t currently true.

Notice the word “currently” in that last sentence.  Science is constantly evolving and changing because science is open to new possibilities.  Magical thinking isn’t.  Magical thinking is open to one possibility: that the world functions according to a set of principles that can never be proven and therefore have to be true.  It is the opposite of open-minded inquiry.

Magical thinking caused 9/11.  Magical thinking caused the Hollywood Hills murders.  Magical thinking caused someone to take a gun into a Wichita church and assassinate a doctor.  Magical thinking caused otherwise “ordinary” people to beat the life out of a gay teenager and leave him to die on a fence in Wyoming.  Magical thinking has already caused untold numbers of deaths throughout history, and it is continuing to cause them today.  Magical thinking, no matter how innocuous it may seem, is dangerous.

**Just kidding, vegans.  I love you.

***Anyone who has read Sam Harris’s exceptionally good book, The End of Faith, probably recognized this argument.  Please pretend that I’m not borrowing it.  And if you didn’t recognize the argument, do not, under any circumstances, read that book.  Continue believing that I came up with that on my own.

Babe vs. Bacon (Round One)

I can’t imagine a better way to kick off a new blog than with a post trashing someone else for talking about healthy living.  People love that.  So let’s talk about the Food Babe.

If you aren’t familiar with this particular snake oil peddler, feel free to peruse the link.  But as you may have guessed, the Food Babe is a babe who’s concerned about food.  Why would she feel the need to use the word “Babe” in her official title?  Well, she’s smoking hot.  Which is something we can all see, because her site is plastered with pictures of her posing for the camera.  Her “About” section has an absolute barrage of pictures of her holding glasses of green stuff, standing in supermarket aisles (Well, green screens, but what’s the difference, right?), posing with celebrities, and protesting at the DNC.  Whatever else she may be, this girl sure is photogenic.

“But hey now,” I’m sure some of you are saying.  “Aren’t you just being a typical chauvinist and dismissing the girl for her looks instead of looking at the substance of her arguments?  That’s sexist.  You’re sexist.  And I bet you hate children’s laughter, too.”

None of that is true, except the bit about children’s laughter.

I call attention to her apparent desire to be a spokesmodel for the holistic/homeopathic/land-of-fairies-and-bullshit world, because it’s all she has going for her.  She uses her good looks to distract people from the fact that she knows absolutely fuck-all about the subjects she posts on.  

And how can I say that?  Because I took the time to actually read the few paragraphs of biography she provides in her “About” section.

Now, one would think that on a blog about nutrition and wellness, the blog’s principle author would be someone in the medical field.  Or a scientist.  A nutritionist.  Maybe someone who studied these things in school.    Certainly, one would hope that someone repeatedly posting scientific information and purporting to understand it and have read the relevant research would at least have an undergraduate degree in a science-related subject.

Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised that she hasn’t got any of those qualifications, but I’m still a little disgusted by it.  In her own words, she’s a woman whose “typical American diet landed me where that diet typically does, in a hospital. It was then, in the hospital bed more than ten years ago, that I decided to make health my number one priority.”

At this point, she launches in to a rambling paragraph about all the learning she did after that transformative experience (which must have been in middle or high school, because she’s still pretty young).  At no point does she reference a single course, book, essay or scrap of notebook paper that she read.  She simply “educated” herself about all the lies that big business had been telling her.  This is apparently enough for her to be a trusted voice (for some) in nutrition, and has clearly made her enough money to have a publicist, a series of speaking engagements, and a whole bunch of homeopathic/holistic products available for sale right there on her site.

So let’s all remember, kids: it’s only OK to charge money for things when you include the word “natural” or “Far Eastern” in front of them.  Everything else is the hellspawn of big business.  Businesses are only evil when they’re big.  Small corporations are totally altruistic and loving.

Now, why am I so harsh on her?  In spite of that dearth of inexperience, who’s to say she isn’t right?  Well, she very well might be right about a number of things, and I’m certainly not going to claim that Americans couldn’t focus more on nutrition.

But.

In browsing through some of the articles on her blog, I lost count of the number of scientific “facts” that weren’t cited, were cited incorrectly, or were gross distortions of the truth.  For example, she has a post about the evils of pizza chains, in which she decries the chains for using alternatives to MSG that still contain words that sound scary to her.  She links to an article, claiming that the article provides proof that these alternatives have the same effects as MSG.  It doesn’t, nor does she provide any other evidence that they do.  But, like most of the hacks out there, she’s really hoping you won’t take the time to actually research her claims.

After all, she says she’s already done the research for you.  What’s the point in doing all that independent thinking when you could be buying the Food Babe’s manual to eating well?  After all, when you’ve got a book written by someone with absolutely no formal scientific education or experience, why would you ever feel the need to read anything else on the subject?

My point here is not that eating healthy is bad or even that the Food Babe is wrong about everything she posts.  I know I could stand to have a better diet, and I’m sure she makes some valid points.  But the issue here is that she has no background in the subject she’s trying to teach people about.

You  wouldn’t ask a random attractive person on the street about the Higgs boson.  So why would you essentially do the same thing when it comes to your own nutrition?