Monday, March 12, 2012

Don't Be A Militant Atheist

Don't be a militant atheist, though the temptation may be great. The day you notice "The God Delusion" in the book store, you may be overcome with curiosity and pick it up, glancing around to make sure your religious friends don't walk past by chance. You might flip through the pages and see a phrase, a question, an assertion that you thought to yourself time after time in the pew. Grit your teeth, turn that page over. Don't read what might be Dawkins's answer. It will only bring you emptiness, separation and grief.

Don't be a militant atheist, despite what others say. You might stumble across r/atheism or YouTube or an atheist blog. You will find yourself nodding at their words and memes. Your hands might be aching to reply or to agree. As you read about biblical history, you will want so badly to believe that there probably was no Jesus or Moses. You may feel the urge to counter an apologist, knowing that his arguments are laden with holes. But you must remain silent and quell your objections. After all, who could they possibly convince?

Don't be a militant atheist, or you'll invite intolerance. When you feel your eyes swell and tear at the news story of the child who died of medical neglect based in her parents religion, change the channel, put down the paper. You will feel angry at the fact that young boys are being trained as suicide bombers or about the gay teen in Utah who is now living on the streets. Simply remind yourself that culture is relative and that differences are a good thing. Attribute violent actions to one or two bad people rather than corrupt systems. Convince yourself that there are many truths. You may be white or male or cisgendered or western, so remember that you have no right to tell people how to live.

Don't be a militant atheist, religion has its benefits. You may disagree with your entire family, but you won't let that come between you. You can go to church, mosque or synagogue with your siblings every weekend, though you will wince at the injustice you may hear from the pulpit. Tell your cleric that you are struggling with you faith and he will smile and call you "my child". Accept what he says as acceptable and ignore your doubts until the next week. At least you have community, your personal opinions are unimportant.

Somewhere out there, there is a person who used to be just like you. She was afraid to know the truth, worried her arguments would be in vain, afraid of being seen as intolerant and she was scared of losing her loved ones upon telling them of her doubts.  Living for years trapped inside herself, she outwardly prayed to the emptiness she felt while secretly wishing that someone around her would admit to having the same doubts. One day, she let go of her fear and became an activist, knowing that there would be others who would be just as trapped and alone as she used to be. When people asked her why she had to be such a militant atheist, she would smile and reply:

"All those years I didn't speak up, I allowed others to live in fear. We must fight against injustice so it will someday disappear."

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Of Prescriptivism and Privilege: Random Thoughts on "Grammar Nazis"

Last night, I was transcribing a debate in order to write the subtitles for a video I was working on and I came across a phrase that made me think. The theist in the debate proposed the existence of "a whole nother world". I was perplexed. In a strict sense, "nother" is not considered a word. But it IS a word. When we hear the phrase "a whole nother" everyone understands what it means; it's a synonym for "completely separate" or "completely different". Technically speaking, it's that word "another" with the word "whole" inserted as an infix in order to intensify it. In this way, it's similar to the phrase "abso-fucking-lutely". It got me thinking about our standards for "proper" grammar and whether or not those standards are justified by anything other than the expectations of the establishment.

When people say that there is a proper way to speak, this is called "prescriptivism" or "prescriptive grammar". It's very much accepted amongst educated people that there are certain rules we have to follow in order to "speak correctly". Many of us are told from a young age that we shouldn't split infinitives, use double negatives or say words like "ain't". When we asked why, we are given the explanation that we should follow these rules because people will take us more seriously, professionals and academics speak "properly" and because, well, that's "just the way it is". The more I study language, the less sure I am that prescriptivism or "grammar-nazism" is a valid position. I'm in no way a language expert, but I can't help but notice some rather concerning implications of grammatical prescriptivism.

1. What is Language For?

Language is, first and foremost, a method of communication. It's purpose is to convey information from one person to another, or, in some cases, from a person to an animal or from a person to a machine. Language develops and evolves based on what people say and how they say it. There is no "language god" that hands down our syntax, morphology or phonology. Like biological evolution, linguistic conventions arise out of combinations of and variations on older conventions. New languages form when two or more languages meet, or when speakers of a single language are dramatically isolated for a significant period of time. Because of the fluidity of language, it seems silly and unjustified to me to say that one dialect is "better" or "more proper" than another. To call a modern variation of english "bad english" appears similar to calling Spanish "bad Latin". After all, Spanish came about as a combination of what was called "vulgar latin" and the other languages that existed in the region in which Spanish developed. This same phenomenon occurs in English constantly. You may have heard of "creoles" spoken in certain areas of the United States or of African American Vernacular English, considered by some to be a semi-creole. The strictest of grammar nazis would call these dialects "bad english", but I must reiterate, this seems no more logical or defensible than calling Spanish "bad latin".

2. Let's face it. By "Proper English", You Mean "White English".

Have you ever thought critically about the "grammar rules" you're told to follow? Have you ever ever told by a "grammar nazi" or in school that you must change the word "she" to "her" following a transitive verb because english is a nominative-accusive language? You may have heard this in a linguistics class, but otherwise, you probably don't need to be told that if you're a native speaker. Rules like those are what differentiates english from other languages and thus, are what constitutes english grammar. However, when talking about "good grammar", we're usually talking about "no double negatives" and such rules. But let's think about that example for a moment.

There are dialects of english in which double negatives are used and understood. Generally, they are used in the African American Vernacular and in urban settings. Yet, in order to be taken seriously by the establishment, people raised to speak those dialects are forced to learn to speak as would a white, upper class male. For this reason, I believe that "grammar" is one of the strongest and most invisible examples of privilege in our society. I've heard that point made that "proper grammar" is not considered more acceptable because its "white", but instead because it's professional and academic. My point still stands. In the past, the "professional" and academic worlds were dominated by upper-class white males. It makes perfect sense that their dialect would be the one considered the most acceptable in those circles.

This is not a criticism of the entirety of academia as being a "white male" field. The scientific method does well to eliminate potential biases in academia. However, while scientific theories are subject to peer review, the culture of academia is not. The language of the professional and academic world is a part of that culture. We must not forget that fact. It is just as unfair to judge someone's intellect based on their dialect as it is to do so based on their skin color.

3. Is There Anything Useful About Prescriptivism? 

The only reason I can see as even remotely legitimate in favor of prescriptivist grammar is the assertion that, if everyone speaks in a similar manner, it's easier to understand each other. In fields such a science, accurate communication is incredibly important. I don't exactly know what the solution is to this conundrum. Even if that is a legitimate reason to establish universal grammatical rules, I still don't see the reason why that standard has to be determined by the privileged majority. This is clearly an area for discussion and, quite frankly, I wish I heard more of that on this topic. At this point, I think the most important thing we should do is the same thing we do when we hear any widely accepted assertion. The next time someone says that your grammar isn't "good", ask them what they mean by "good".

Note: I mean for this entry to only address speaking. I feel like writing is another can of worms that I'm not talking about here. Thanks.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Provocative? Yes. Racist? ...Not so sure.

I've always said that sometimes, people need to be offended. Hurt feelings and outrage don't generally seem productive at first, but remember: we can't solve nasty problems without first being made aware of them. That brings me to this divisive issue.

For the last week, my "atheist" google alert stream has been abuzz with articles on the the "Year of the Bible" protest billboard in Pennsylvania. I'm sure you've seen it by now, but in case you haven't, it portrays a shackled black slave alongside the bible verse "slaves, obey your earthly masters". Only a day after this controversial sign was erected, it was vandalized and eventually taken down. A common allegation among those who were not in favor of the billboard was that it was racist.

Surprisingly, I actually think that the outrage at the content of the billboard was justified. The problem is that it was misplaced outrage. Slavery is a very real phenomenon, the practice of which should elicit offense from any empathetic human being. If you are a member of a segment of the population that was once enslaved, the reaction is even more understandable.

The problem is that to call the sign itself racist is to shoot the messenger. The tragic fact of the matter is that there was was time in American history in which African Americans were enslaved and that the bible justifies slavery. The object of the angry reaction should not be the atheist group that put up the billboard, but the bible itself. Pennsylvania Nonbelievers were only quoting it, just as slaveholders did in the days prior to abolition.

A question still remains, however. Why did Pennsylvania Nonbelievers have to display such a graphic image? Simply, to catch much needed attention. The biblical quote alone, while awful, is easy to ignore on its own. The picture reminds us just what that quote MEANS. We might make a comparison to holocaust museums. Would they not be less powerful if we removed the pictures of concentration camps for fear of being anti-semetic? For those of us living in the luxurious first world, it's hard to imagine how terrible practices like slavery really are. It's easy for us to just shrug off those bible verses... unless we are jolted by a dramatic demonstration of what their implications are.

Now I know, I know. I'm white. I'm privileged. I don't know what it's like to be black. Point taken. But here's my suggestion. Next time an atheist group puts up a controversial sign, they should include one of the verses about executing promiscuous women alongside an image of a stoning in Iran. Even as a woman, I would defend it just the same. 

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Christopher Hitchens, what a radical!

So this article came up today:

The FBI Monitored a Young Christopher Hitchens

I'm frankly not sure whether to be frightened or fascinated. A little of both, honestly. I think the most important thing I tok away from this report is a new life's goal: to be subversive and/or important enough to be investigated on the down low. ...within reason, of course.


Joseph Kony: Christian Radical

You know what's interesting? The recent upsurge in support for the effort to eliminate Joseph Kony. Last year, I wrote on the problem of evil and used the situation in Uganda as an example, so you already know how I feel about the atrocities this man has committed. What really interests me though, is the fact that people, even in the atheist community really haven't jumped on the fact that Kony operates in the name of religion. More specifically, he operates in the name of Christianity.

I know that any Christian reading this is going to pull out a "no true scotsman" excuse, but I really don't want to hear it. Kony fully and truly believes that his cause is ordered and sanctified by the god of the bible.

One of my videos that is often criticized is the one where I assert that Christianity and Islam are equally dangerous. There is a common notion in America that Christians have become watered down in their beliefs and harmless whereas muslims are demonstrably still violently radical. Obviously, not ALL of EITHER group are radical. But ask any former child soldier from Uganda. That common notion is bullshit.'s_Resistance_Army

Last Wednesday Night...

...We had a debate! Here are some of the highlights (video coming soon!):

JT Eberhard gave me a great interview for my upcoming documentary. :))

JT's domo hat was almost a character in and of itself. He wanted to wear it during the debate, but ultimately decided against it. Too bad.

JT immediately caught on to a classic Ann Arbor pastime.

Then he gave an impromptu concert while we officers ran around like chickens with our heads cut off to arrange the room. ;)

We had a bet going as to which arguments JT's opponent was going to use. Who won?

Even the theists thought JT did a good job.

"I'm a more charitable person... but that speaks nothing to the existence of Phyllis."

...Like a boss.

We all did karaoke afterwords...

...but how can we compete with a professional?

I had a pretty incredible night. :))

I think that several of my dreams came true tonight. My friends at SSA really make life worth living sometimes. I was really happy to meet JT Eberhard and Matt Dillahunty tonight. Being able to shoot a professional debate made me feel as if a world I had only seen on the internet was suddenly real. It makes me even more excited for Reason Rally. :)))