Ding Dong, the Reverend’s Dead

As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, Reverend Fred Phelps, founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, died last week.

Fred Phelps, November 13, 1929 – March 19, 2014

There have been some pretty mixed reactions.

Some people are advocating forgiveness, or encouraging everybody to ignore what happened. Others are anxiously awaiting the day they can have a gay orgy on his grave to celebrate the death of the wicked witch of the midwest. Many fall somewhere in the middle, hoping to protest his funeral as he did to so many others, and frustrated that the WBC won’t tell people when or where it will be held (even though they did apparently demand that George Takei and Ellen Degeneres give up the locations of their “unholy” weddings).

I’ve seen plenty of images like this that remind Christians to forgive.

And even though I’ve had a week to think on it since the news came out that Phelps was near death in the hospital, I still don’t know how I feel about it.

Fuck that guy, right? Fuck that guy and his family members that followed in his path. For the sake of all the people he hurt, I want to go picket his funeral and make his family feel alone and hated. I’m happy he’s dead and I wish the rest of them would die, too. I want Old Testament justice for what they’ve done.

That’s my gut reaction. If you don’t feel a little of it, I’m pretty sure you’re a Zen monk and you should get off the internet and start meditating again.

Y’all just radiate peace.

And I’m jealous of that. I don’t want to hate anybody. I don’t want to be happy that somebody died. I fancy myself a humanist; does that mean I’m supposed to be calm and collected and rational toward everybody? Maybe it means I can have these emotions so long as I don’t act on them. I don’t really know, so I’m rather conflicted.

At what point do I stop being an advocate for reason and activism and start being a member of a mindless, hateful mob? It’s tough to balance on a line when you don’t even know where it is.

It’s easy to feel righteous indignation sparked by images like this, even though it was posted long before Fred’s death:

Being a leader in the atheist community, I feel ashamed to admit that I can’t just let it go. I should be a role model of acceptance and compassion, but I’m torn. The WBC is made up of some of the most vile people in America… but they’re still people. People who grieve and mourn. I don’t know what I’d do if I found myself at the funeral with the options to ignore it or do my best to make it a horrible day for Fred’s family.

But it gets easier to dismiss the anger and focus on other things when posts like these start popping up:

The Empire State Building on International Day of Happiness, which just so happens to be the day Fred Phelps died. Reddit user SondheimXXX.

WBC counterprotesters at the Lorde concert in Kansas City. Reddit user ImJustAverage.

And of course, articles like this where Nate Phelps speaks publicly and shows a strength in character I strive for.

Let his death mean something. Let every mention of his name and of his church be a constant reminder of the tremendous good we are all capable of doing in our communities.

My father was a man of action, and I implore us all to embrace that small portion of his faulty legacy by doing the same.

So take what you will from Fred Phelp’s death. Be angry or happy or inspired. Laugh at the memes and appreciate compassionate displays. There’s no right way to react to the death of a horrible person; just make sure it doesn’t consume you, because nothing has really changed. The WBC isn’t going away, and LGBTQ rights won’t magically appear. Don’t get hung up on one person when there are so many more ways your energy could be used.

Will I ever forgive and forget Fred Phelps? Absolutely not. But I won’t waste my time hating him, either. Instead, I’ll dust off those red shoes and watch out for flying monkeys at the next WBC protest.

Dr. Eleonore Stump: A shining example of how speakers shouldn’t behave

“You’re just confused.”

“I recommend my book.”

“Counselors make a living” because people don’t know what’s good for them.

Meet Dr. Eleonore Stump.

Photo from slu.edu

A few weeks ago, this charming professor of philosophy presented her explanation of why a loving God could allow suffering. Her talk was actually titled “The Problem of Evil,” but she never satisfactorily equated evil with suffering, so I’ll call it like I see it.

Her lecture was a lesson for me in two ways: I learned the futility of trying to force an apologetic to answer a question they don’t want to answer, and I observed a fantastic example of what a speaker should not do. The former was useful as an overall life experience, but the latter gave me a lot to think about in terms of organizing a convention.

The basic concept Dr. Stump attempted to get across was that the best thing that can happen for a person is to become closer to God, and suffering is a means to that end. We’ll ignore her unfounded premise that closeness to God is, like, OMG, the best thing EVERRRR and focus on some other problems instead.

Is all suffering because of evil? If I go through a rough breakup, is my ex evil? There’s a lot of suffering out there that has nothing to do with malicious actions of other people. I think this talk should be called “The Problem of Suffering” or “Dr. Stump Needs a Dictionary.” A few members repeatedly asked her to explain where this definition came from, or at least admit that her talk was about suffering, but she brushed off those questions.

This God doesn’t seem all that powerful. Seriously, if hurting His children (or allowing them to be hurt) is the best way he has to persuade them to come into his bear hug, he’s rather weak. Zeus could get closer to his followers by becoming a cloud! And if any real parent did that- “Officer, I only starved little Jimmy so he would shower affection on me as a desperate last resource for happiness”- it would not be called love. It would be called abuse. Dr. Stump kindly reminded us that we can’t possibly understand God’s thought process (but she can).

“Yeah, sorry about your house. But I can make it all better again, just love meeeeeeee!” – God

He doesn’t seem smart either. How many people turn away from religion because they simply can’t fathom that a Father who loves them would allow them to be date-raped or mugged or lose a child? This strategy isn’t very effective, sky-bro. Dr. Stump cleverly explained this by pointing out that we can’t possibly know what happens in a dying person’s mind in their last milliseconds of life, so obviously they all have a chance to turn to God. Obviously.

Dr. Stump also tried to use science to prove her point, and that just made me ragegiggle. She talked about adversarial growth, the psychological phenomenon of becoming tougher after a trauma. Commonly known as “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” According to her, this is a God-given gift, so that sufferers can go on this roundabout hellish journey to heaven. What she fails to mention (or perhaps even understand) is that this is easily an evolutionary adaptation. Our ancestors who moped around probably didn’t get laid as much as the ones who bounced right back and kept hunting or building or whatever they did to get some booty.

Maybe this guy’s mom just died. But he still has to keep up with the migrating group.

She also suggested that people feeling closer to God means they actually are closer to God. Just like every time I feel like I’m going to win the lottery means I’m definitely ending up richer tomorrow. Irrefutable proof, right there. Go look at my imaginary million dollars right next to my debt and sadness.

Okay, she makes faulty arguments and won’t answer direct questions… so she’s a bad speaker. But Katie, what did you learn for your shamelessly plugged conference coming up in March?

Dear reader, I learned how a speaker shouldn’t treat their audience. More importantly, I discovered that what I thought are basic concepts of respect and academic discourse seem to baffle some professionals. I aim to do my best to prevent anything like this happening at SASHAcon.

“You’re just confused.”  She literally said this to one of SASHA’s members instead of answering his question. He was pointing out, like many of us did, that an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God really ought to be able to come up with a better way to lead his flock than to let them die of cholera. Dr. Stump jumped on her circular logic train again, after insulting and belittling an audience member. This is not okay. Statements like this cannot be tolerated in a professional forum. “I think you may be confusing x and y and here’s why” would be fine, or even admitting “I don’t think I can explain this in a different way, so let’s move on” would be an acceptable alternative. Someone who has chosen to give your presentation the time of day should not be personally attacked in any way.

Your audience should not be looking at you like this. You’ve done something wrong.

“I recommend my book.” Oh, do you now? How coincidentally profitable for you to refuse to fully answer a question and send people to purchase your book to get the whole flawed explanation. Very ethical. Although, if you truly cared that we understand your side, and if you really wanted to give us a chance to see the light and go to God, you’d offer your priceless guide for free, right? Didn’t think so.

“Counselors make a living” because people don’t know what’s good for them. Yes, let’s insult an entire profession by insinuating that their only worth is in telling people to stop being stupid. Dr. Stump’s point here was to demonstrate that humans suffer because we choose things we think we want, but turn out to be wrong, and then God is there to give a hug when we inevitably get hurt. Apparently, counselors are like a mini-God or something, steering people away from bad life choices. As someone whose career goals include counseling the severely mentally ill, I find the implication that my job will consist of nothing more helpful than telling people not to cheat on their significant other rude and enormously incorrect. (And shouldn’t it also mean that therapists are evil because they steer people away from the suffering they need to go through in order to find God…?)

Dr. Stump, is this my life?

These are behaviors that I want to make sure our speakers avoid. Dr. Stump can get away with it because she’s part of the religious majority in this country and therefore already has a lot of people on her side. We, on the other hand, can’t afford to alienate anybody who comes to our conference to learn and meet people who represent the atheist community.

Dr. Stump, I find you incompetent and I really dislike you, but I must thank you for demonstrating how not to act as a professional and an academic.

It’s Bisexuality Visibility Day

Hello all!

Been awhile since I’ve posted; hope everyone is doing great!

I think most of the people who read this blog probably know most or all of this stuff already, but allow me to dispel some myths about bisexuality for those who don’t:

Bisexual doesn’t mean promiscuous. Some bisexual people have or have had lots of partners and some don’t or haven’t, same as straight people and gay people etc.

Bisexual doesn’t mean non-monogamous. Some have or prefer open relationships and some don’t.

Bisexual doesn’t mean into threesomes/group sex. Some like sex with multiple partners simultaneously and some don’t.

Bisexual doesn’t mean unfaithful. Just because you find both blondes and brunettes attractive doesn’t mean you’re going to cheat on your blonde girlfriend for a brunette. It doesn’t work like that.

Bisexual doesn’t mean unsure of one’s orientation. It’s true that some gay people identify as bisexual as a stepping-stone to test the waters on their path to realizing they’re gay and/or coming out as gay, but this is not to say bisexuality doesn’t exist in itself. Bisexual does not mean secretly gay. If someone tells you s/he’s bisexual, it is not your place to question this.

Bisexual doesn’t mean “transvestite” (this word can be pejorative as distancing language) or cross-dresser. Some bisexual people like to dress in more feminine clothes or more masculine clothes but that really has little, if anything, to do with their orientation.

Bisexual doesn’t mean trans. Bisexual does not mean a person wishes they had different genitalia than they do, or that they want to be called different pronouns than those that are traditionally associated with the sex assigned to them at birth. Some trans* people are also bisexual but they are independent things.

Bisexual doesn’t mean kinky. Some bisexual people are and some aren’t.

Bisexual doesn’t mean oriented right down the middle (necessarily). Many bisexual people are more attracted to women than they are to men, or vice versa. It’s not black-and-white like that.

Bisexual doesn’t mean a person doesn’t take safe sex seriously, or that a person is more likely to have a sexually transmitted infection.

A person does not have to have been in any variation of a relationship in order to say they’re bisexual. Having been in a “same-sex” relationship, or having been in both a “same-sex” and “straight” relationship at different times, does not “legitimize” a person’s bisexuality. There is no such thing as a “legitimate” bisexual person.

Guys, it is extremely egocentric and insulting to imply that bisexual women or lesbians who are affectionate with other women in your presence are doing so for your benefit. This is not to say that some women (even those who are straight) don’t do this for attention from men, but if you know someone to be bisexual, don’t assume that their sex life has anything to do with your sex life unless you are partners.

Oh, and if you’re fine with bisexual relationships between two women but think bisexual relationships between two men are gross, guess what? You’re still a bigot, but hopefully after reading this, at least you won’t be an ignorant one.

Until next time!

Dave
dave_bio_pic4Dave Muscato is the Public Relations Director for American Atheists based in Cranford, New Jersey, where he blogs regularly at http://www.atheists.org. An atheism activist, blogger, and public speaker, he is also a board member of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog when he has time; and he also blogs for the Humanist Community at Harvard and SkepticFreethought.com. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com

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and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too!

Possessed hand ushers in the Apocalypse: Thanks OBAMA!

Norfolk, VA. In an effort to raise the cost of U.S. health care so that His will can be done and Obamacare repealed, the Lord has forsaken hospitals and given them over to the Devil himself.

The Devil was first introduced to the health care system when his son on earth, Obama, filed down his horns and ran for president on a health care platform. Through a yearlong campaign deceiving the weak of faith, despite Elisabeth Hasselbeck’s warnings and a chain email sent out by God, the Devil managed to fool Americans into thinking Obamacare would be a good idea.

Now he has struck. The Devil recently possessed a Virginia man’s hand and caused him to sin. So, in accordance with the OT, Thomas Passmore cut off his hand. Foolishly, he rushed not only himself bodily to the hospital, but also brought his possessed hand, thereby allowing the Devil to enter the hospital.

greek-handless

The ancient Greeks’ hands were frequent targets of demonic possession, which we see reflected in their sculptures. Their civilization collapsed into Godlessness.

Due to recent advances in medicine, hospitals are normally protected from demonic intrusion through a series of rituals and other scientific things. However, due to a weakness in the system, which for obvious security reasons cannot be revealed, the possessed hand was allowed into the hospital, where it quickly wreaked havoc.

The doctors attempted to reattach Passmore’s possessed hand, but as he was then free from his possession, he vehemently resisted. He explained that the hand was possessed by the Devil.

Dr. Tad Grenga, who was in charge of the ordeal, claimed, “we ran a few differential diagnostics on both the patient and the disembodied hand. The most likely explanation, according to my medical education at Liberty University, was that indeed the hand was possessed, and we would be violating the Hippocratic oath by reattaching it. We therefore gave the patient a silver hook, which he could use to fight off future evil forces, like werewolves. Obamacare encourages that kind of preventative care, so we met all standard of care criteria.”

The hand, now running free throughout the hospital, disagrees: “Haec allegata sunt flagitia! Ut filii lucis estis, et filii serpentis; Quid tandem te nocebunt? Nolumus autem vos suffocare!” The hand then hissed and scampered off toward Pediatrics.

However, the Devil’s work was not finished, according to Dr. Grenga: “Now fully possessed by The Great Deceiver, the patient claims to have been suffering from psychosis while protesting his hand’s reattachment. He is suing me for three million dollars. I pray to God that this will go away.”

God’s heavenly messengers issued a press release this morning via a trumpeted fanfare announcing that God had no intention of intervening on Dr. Grenga’s behalf, stating, “With baseball season ramping up after the All-Star Break, His Majesty must devote full attention to matters more important than hospitals. Grenga would do better to make a large bet on the Royals and pray to Him for their victory.”

Passmore maintains that it was all a psychotic episode, which the medical staff should have detected. He maintains that, while in his psychotic state, he was unable to make any decisions concerning his medical treatment. But, that’s just what a possessed liar would say.

According to Dr. Emory Taylor, Chair of Demonology at Harvard, we can expect more of these incidents in the near future, as Satan and his children dismantle the forsaken health care institution, like they did with education due to the teaching of evolution.

[http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19970904&slug=2558454, story actually from 1997.]

An atheist’s conundrum

What do we do when a friend is in need? We comfort them, give them kind words and a shoulder to cry on.  It’s human nature.

So what do you do if you know what your friend needs to hear to feel better, but it conflicts with your own views?

I’m particularly intrigued by this subject because I’m rather drawn to helping people in their time of crisis. I want to work as a therapist someday; while my area of interest is in severe psychological disorders, I’m sure there will be plenty of patients who will need to grieve sooner or later. I’ll probably constantly be deciding how to comfort people without feeling that I’m lying to them or doing them an injustice.

I know many, or perhaps most, people make it through struggles by the thought that they will see loved ones again in Heaven, or that some god has a plan and, therefore, everything will work out. Part of me wants to say “well, your belief isn’t hurting anybody and right now it’s the only rock you have in this chaos – let’s just go with that route.” And I’m tempted to tell them the things they want to hear.


But I know it’s not genuine. I can’t bring myself to lie to a friend, or even a stranger, by assuring them of something that completely opposes my worldview. And worse than that, I don’t want to encourage in them what I see as a negative or harmful trait. Every time a person turns to religion for comfort and their burden lessens, that behavior is reinforced even if other factors (like time passing or friends’ support) ultimately were more helpful.

Maybe in a situation you can’t change, like a relative’s death, this isn’t so bad. It’s just comfort, right? But when you use the God-will-fix-it mentality for everything, you start to lose the ability or will to help yourself.  Maybe someone else was hired instead of you; to me, this would mean you might need to find things about yourself to improve. But if it’s part of “God’s plan” and you just know it’s all going to work out, why bother?

So you might say that’s still not too terrible, because you’re only really hurting yourself there (unless you’ve got others to support). I would still prefer to avoid encouraging someone to behave or think like this, but at least it’s on a small scale.

What about when it comes to others? The person who believes in the almighty Plan might justify ignoring  the suffering of others because God either put them there for a reason or will be saving them if they’re worthy. The person who turns to faith for easy answers instead of using logic or reason or even focusing on the real world for a damn minute is much more likely to see a stranger’s distress and dismiss it because “they must have deserved it.” The women at Planned Parenthood can’t be allowed to have abortions, they’re ruining God’s plan, and why did they go whoring around anyway?

I am by no means saying that comforting a friend by telling them “I’m sure your mom is still watching over you” will automatically turn them into a heartless jerk who doesn’t care about starving Africans or single moms. But it is indicative of our culturally encouraged tendency to be religious. And we’ve all seen what religious attitudes can produce, and the harm that can be caused by religion.

So I will not contribute to it. I can give comfort all day, but I refuse to lie or send my friend to find solace in a myth. I believe in the power of people, what we can do when we come together and help each other. So I’ll stay right here in reality when it comes time to console someone, and give more substantive support than God ever could.

CFI Student Leadership Conference 2013 – A Reflection

CFI Con 2013

Every summer Center For Inquiry hosts a student leadership conference for the leaders of secular groups throughout the country. With relish I was able to attend with a friend, officer, and blogger, Tony Lakey. During our 14-hour drive I had the pleasure of making friends with our gracious rideshare, the organizers of a blossoming student group in St.Louis MO, Freethought SIUE. After meeting together outside the St.Louis Science Center a full day in advance, our party disembarked on our overnight journey.

Fresh as an Ohio morning.

Fresh as an Ohio morning.

Nearly 12 hours after we began our voyage bright rays of sun streaked out over the tree line of rolling Ohio farmlands. Our cumulative excitement for the conference grew stronger as high levels of caffeine coursed through our veins.  Laughter shook our bodies as we deliriously played trivia games with nothing but asinine responses. Truth be told, even while we became collectively more tired, our excitement grew with every mile.

We timed our arrival to CFI just in time for a pizza lunch and then a well needed nap. The welcoming reception kicked off the conference that afternoon as people, young and old, filed their ways into the building.

Goddamn, we look good.

Goddamn, we look good.

This was my second journey to CFI for the Student leadership conference and I was very much looking forward to every moment of it. The conference offers a great wealth of educational, training, networking, and learning opportunities. Every day different speakers presented on a variety of topics with the purposes of teaching and cultivating new skills. After each event speakers were given the chance of answering questions from the audience allowing dialogues to continue outside of scheduled engagements.

Sikivu Hutchinson sets it straight

Sikivu Hutchinson sets it straight.

More than once I was moved to tears over the passionate discourse of different speakers. The passionate professings of Sikivu Hutchinson. Vlad Chituc and Robby Bensinger appeared on a panel discussion of about debating religion on campus. Nick Cooney’s presented on a book with his revelations on social change.  James Croft the Harvard graduate and Humanist, dashing director of CFI’s office of Public policy Michael De Dora, and labor organizer and skeptical activism workshopper Desiree Schell were just a few of the many fantastic speakers at the conference.

Even Humanists like James Croft enjoy Star Trek.

Even Humanists like James Croft enjoy Star Trek.

For four entire days, I awoke to coffee, bagels, and intelligent discourse. I honestly felt like I was somewhere in low-earth orbit. Being surrounded by the smartest, most dedicated and talented batch of college students, activists and leaders that the US has to offer (and several Canadian students, eh) was an experience that left me dazed but anxious for more. Between talks I met many different people with many different stories and backgrounds. Everyone brought different skills and talents to the table even if they were just excitement and willingness to harness recently acquired knowledge.

Every evening, we returned to the dorms on University of Buffalo’s campus for either some shuteye or late night socializing. It was not an uncommon occurrence catching speakers and students candidly chatting in dorm rooms and hallways, hearing heated debates, raucous laughter, or the strum of a guitar strings late into the night. By the end of each night, sometimes near sunrise, everyone was spent but ready to get up and start again.
CFI AWARD
During the conference awards were presented to many student groups in attendance.To both Tony’s and my own surprise SASHA was awarded for our activism in defense of the Bangladeshi bloggers. (pictured above) You can read more about the event here.

As my time at the conference drew closer and closer to an end grew anxious and sad to know I would be leaving. I look forward to attending the conference in the future as student and activist. I can only imagine the growth and change I’ll see in our movement the next time I am in NY.

736766_10151745801840516_695012710_o

CFI hosted us students as a community and I walked away from the conference feeling like I just became part of another family. A larger family and perhaps a global family. 

Brinkmanship

TheHeat

If you want to be a rational agent, you have to become a master of brinkmanship. In short, brinkmanship is a game in which players increase the risk of everyone involved until someone blinks. It is a dangerous art, but without it in your toolkit, you will lose many utility payoffs.

In “The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist’s Guide to Success in Business and Life,” the authors describe brinkmanship as the process of “taking an adversary to the brink of disaster in order to get him to blink first.” The key is not to make a simple threat, “do this or else,” but to start with a small risk and gradually increase the risk of the threat happening, until they blink.

We see a funny example of this in The Heat, starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. Attempting to get information out of a suspect, the two dangle him upside down over the edge of a third story fire escape. The risk starts relatively small, because their arms are not yet tired and they could easily pull him back up if he were to give in. However, as time goes by, the risk of their arms giving out increases, putting more pressure on him to talk. Unfortunately, they miscalculate how quickly this brink will approach, and even after he talks, they drop the suspect onto a car below.

The threat was not simply “give us the information or we’ll drop you.” The threat was, “the longer you stay quiet, the longer we hold you over the railing and the weaker our arms get.” This is the essence of brinkmanship. The brink is disastrous, and both parties are uncertain of when exactly it will happen. The uncertainty creates risk, and the risk “should be sufficiently intolerable to your opponent to induce him to eliminate the risk by following your wishes.” (Dixit and Nalebuff, 2010)

In order to succeed in brinkmanship, you must be able to make credible threats. This means that your opponent must believe that you are just reckless enough to allow the disaster to happen. Making a threat with words alone is just cheap talk. It takes focus and discipline to demonstrate to one’s opponent that you are a little bit crazy.

If everyone knows that you are a responsible and reliable agent, then you will never be able to make a credible threat. So, when it comes to brinkmanship, people like you are especially disadvantaged.

People like me, on the other hand, have a history of chaos and self-destructive behavior. I like to break things. I can make credible threats. Of course, I can’t claim that my particular reputation results from focus and discipline on my part: I am just naturally a reckless person.

The authors of “The Art of Strategy” give the following eight principles to guide you toward a better brinkmanship game:

1. Write contracts to back up your resolve.

2. Establish and use a reputation.

The above two principles change the game’s payoffs so that it is in your interest to follow through with the threat. The worst part about threats is when you have to follow through with them, so it is important to put structures in place that make it costly for you to wimp out, more costly than following through.

3. Cut off communication.

4. Burn bridges behind you.

5. Leave the outcome beyond your control, or even to chance.

Principles three, four and five make it harder for you to wimp out, not by changing the payoffs, but by removing available actions. If your opponent sees that you are unable to wimp out, the risk will be more pressing.

6. Move in small steps.

Principle six combines the above strategies by changing both the payoffs and the available actions. As the steps increase, so does the risk, until it reaches your opponent’s equilibrium, which is hopefully well within your own threshold.

7. Develop credibility through teamwork.

8. Employ mandated agents.

Principles seven and eight help you make credible threats by working with others. If you are part of a team, then you can do things that an individual alone cannot. Similarly, it is more difficult for a single individual to change the behavior of a group. Taking this idea a step further. By hiring people to carry out your threats, you remove both your ability and their ability to wimp out. Of course, you need to have structures in place to ensure that your agent cannot be bought with a higher offer from your opponent.

Of course, risk is an essential element of brinkmanship, so falling off the edge is always a possibility. However, as these games are ubiquitous in business and life, it is better to be prepared for them than to simply get steamrolled by your opponents.