Friday, November 20, 2015

Bi Any Means Podcast #26: Humanism, Common Ground, and Microagressions with Jessica Xiao

My guest for today is Jessica Xiao, who is a project assistant for the American Humanist Association and a regular contributor to Today we’ll be chatting about her background, her work at the AHA, and a few of her articles.


Thursday, November 19, 2015

Warning: This Article Seeks a Middle Ground in the Trigger Warning Debate--My Latest Article for

Earlier this month on the Humanist Hour podcast, Bo Bennett and Kim Ellington interviewed philosophy professor Peter Boghossian about trigger warnings and safe spaces on college campuses. According to Boghossian, many universities are “held hostage by the regressive left” by censoring certain ideas that might trigger students to recall traumatic experiences. Boghossian believes that these new provisions hinder students from getting a complete education. Many critics echo Boghossian’s concerns that the current discourse surrounding trigger warnings and microaggressions are nothing more than the “PC police’s” latest ploy to suppress free speech.

Read the rest here.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Dogmatism Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

Remember that thing I wrote the other day, about how everyone thinks their interpretation of reality is the right one? At best, this mentality leads to petty arguments on the Internet, but at its worse it leads to yesterday’s terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris.

I really don’t want to debate whether Islam is “a religion of peace” or “a religion of dashing your enemies to pieces” because a) I’d rather have ex-Muslims like Heina Dadabhoy and Sadaf Ali tell their stories instead of talking over them, and b) neither statement tells the full story. Like the Christian Bible, there are several ways to interpret the Quran, ranging from liberal Islam to Islamism. However, just like with fundamentalist Christianity, fundamentalist Islam has its roots in scripture. So I don’t agree with Reza Aslan; religion did play a part in yesterday’s attacks, along with other factors.

Instead I want to talk about the one thing that ties Christian fundamentalism, Islamism, and other dangerous ideologies together: dogmatism.

Google defines dogmatism as the tendency to lay down principles as incontrovertibly true, without consideration of evidence or the opinions of others.” Most people use the word fundamentalism as a synonym for dogmatism, but there’s a slight difference. Fundamentalism, as Google defines it, “upholds belief in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture.” This is why, as James Croft explains, there’s no such thing as a “fundamentalist atheist” because atheism has no Bible.

Dogmatism, on the other hand, can happen with any ideology, whether it’s religious or secular. It’s what happens when one is so sure that one’s own interpretation of reality is the right one, and everybody else is wrong. Of course not all beliefs are automatically dogmatic. After all, as the diagram below illustrates, when use beliefs and truths to gain knowledge:

However, sometimes our beliefs do not align with the facts. I can believe all I want that I’m a millionaire, but one look at my bank account will show that’s not true. But what if I refuse to acknowledge the facts? What if I still believe that I am a millionaire, and I keep spending money like one? Eventually I won’t have any money left, and I’ll be shit out of luck. That, my friends, is how dogmatism works.

This is why epistemology and skepticism are so important: they remind us that we could be wrong. It’s scary to think we could be wrong because we wrap our entire identities around our beliefs. But as Ricky Gervais famously said, “Beliefs don’t change facts. Facts, if you’re rational should change your beliefs.” Plus, with the events of Paris and Beirut, the only alternative, dogmatism, is literally killing us. As Sam Harris wrote in The End of Faith, “If religious war is ever to become unthinkable for us, in the way that slavery and cannibalism seem poised to, it will be a matter of our having dispensed with the dogma of faith”

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Reality Is All In Your Head: Thoughts On Epistemology, Skepticism, And Why Internet Arguments Suck

[Image text: White letters against an orange background that read, "Keep calm and understand epistemology." Picture credit: Philosophy @ MHS.]

If you listen to the Everyone’s Agnostic podcast, you’ll no doubt be familiar with Hank Green’s “Towering Mountain of Ignorance” video.  In it, he says we are constantly trying to make sense of the world around us, and so we attach meanings to events. However, just because you think you have it all figured out doesn’t mean you have. “The world as we perceive it, as we’ve built it inside ourselves,” Green says, “is a lie that we tell to ourselves not out of deception, but out of necessity.” It’s a great reminder not to believe everything we think.
In fact, as I’ve recently discovered in my current Intro to Philosophy class, this is common narrative running throughout philosophy, especially in the study of epistemology. From Plato to Descartes to Kant to Derrida, the question remains the same: How do you know what you know is true? Can you trust your own senses?

Immanuel Kant, for example, famously said we can only experience the phenomenal world (i.e. how we experience the material world) and not the noumenal (what lies beyond the phenomenal) world. In his book The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant asked if “synthetic a priori knowledge” (a.k.a. a combination of knowledge we gain from both experiencing a thing and prior to experiencing a thing) was possible. I won’t go into the details because it’s a pretty complex concept, but as Nigel Warburton summarizes it in A Little History of Philosophy, Kant had “not only proved that we are wearing rose-tinted spectacles, but also had made new discoveries about the various shades of pink that these glasses contribute to all experience" (114).
Which why I believe at least 50% of reality is all in your head.

We think we know how the world works based on our experiences and limited knowledge, but then a new piece of information comes along that changes everything. My worldview today is different than it was five years ago, and my worldview from five years ago was different than it was ten years ago, and so on. Five years ago I was a moderately progressive evangelical with a liberal #AllLivesMatter mentality because that’s all I knew. Everything I had experienced and read as a white cishet Christian man (this was before I realized I was queer) told me that my narrow view of reality was “true reality.” Now that I’ve explored life outside of the white cisheteronormative capitalist Christian bubble, I realize I was wrong about everything. I’m sure five years from now I’m going to realize some of my current beliefs are wrong.

This is why skepticism is scary but necessary. It’s scary because you’re going to eventually discover a fact (or two) that will challenge your core beliefs and, hence, your identity. I know we are more than our beliefs, but we cling on to our beliefs so tightly that they become part of our identity. Coming out of Christianity was a long and difficult process for me because Christianity was my life. And yet I know I’m a much better person now that I’ve abandoned religion and embraced humanism. 

This is also why online debates usually end up going nowhere in my experience. Two people can look at the same issue with two completely different worldviews based on personal experience and preconceived notions, so when they argue about which worldview is correct, neither can convince the other to see things their way because neither can see the whole picture.

For example, a few years ago there was a Prickly City comic strip where conservative Latina Carmen and liberal coyote Winslow are arguing about creationism. Carmen believes God made everything, while Winslow says everything came from the Big Bang. In the last panel, they both point to a beautiful sunset and say, “See?” In my experience, this is how online debates usually pan out.

This is especially true with the debate over the so-called “coddling” of American college students. I’ve already written about this topic elsewhere, so I don’t want to bore you all with what I think. But when trying to explain my position to people on the other side of the debate (especially with one Facebook friend in particular), they automatically assume I want to imply speech codes on campus and censor any material that might “hurt feelings” (I don’t remember ever saying this, of course) based on their experiences and preconceived notions of “social justice warriors.” Likewise, I can’t understand the other person’s point of view, so I automatically assume they don’t care about marginalized people because of my personal experiences and a priori knowledge of what I call “dudebro armchair intellectuals.”

(Of course my mental health issues don’t help me discern people’s intentions in a rational matter, either.)

So maybe we’re all just towering mountains of ignorance bumping into each other constantly. Maybe the best thing to do is be like Hank Green and just say, “I don’t know.” Or maybe we should all just read more Kant.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Granting Platforms To The Marginalized: Making Sense Of Yale -- Guest Post on Matthew Facciani's Blog

While everyone is focused on the students’ behavior, very few media outlets are talking about how colleges should address racism on campus. As we’ve seen with the #BlackLivesMatter protests, many of our institutions are steeped in racism, including our academic system. As Dianna E. Anderson recently wrote, “Black Americans could not be educated at these institutions to begin with, and that legacy is still felt on campus, where students of color feel as though they are entering yet another white space that ignores their identities or treats them as debatable issues.” So despite what Boghossian or Richard Dawkins may say, the Yale protests is not about hurt feelings; it’s about systemic racism that’s not being properly addressed. 
Which leads us to the next question: How do we address racism on campus?
Read the rest here.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Why Storytelling Is Important For Atheists

[Picture credit: Mike Grenville]

[CN: Violence]

This past Saturday, I attended the first ever Atheists of Facebook onlineconvention. Every hour from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Adam Collins posted a video of a different presentation on the Atheists of Facebook YouTube page. It was a wonderful opportunity not just to make new friends, but also hear a diverse array of voices. Plus, my homegirl Callie Wright was one of the presenters, so that’s always a plus!

Anyway, one video that really stuck out to me was James Graham. His video began with an apology for not having the time to put something together, but he more than made up for it by sharing his story of growing up in a Christian fundamentalist house. It started when his mother smacked him for writing with his left hand, and eventually got to the point where his father tried to kill him. Anyone who saw that video will never forget it.

When it comes to getting non-atheists to understand why we don’t believe in gods, a lot of atheists rely on scientific facts and reasoning. While debunking religious ideas is important, sometimes the best method is storytelling. A story puts a human face on a complex issue. For example, in creative writing class we learned that while a news story like the Rwanda genocide might be bad enough, it isn’t until you hear the story of someone who was there that you begin to understand how horrible the genocide really was.

This is why I use storytelling to explain why, after thirteen years of being a devout Christian, I’m now an atheist. I want people to know how internalizingreligious dogma damaged my mental health. I want people to know how difficult it was for me to transition from a devout Christian to an atheist. I don’t expect to de-convert anyone (although getting people to think is always nice), but my friends have told me they understand where I’m coming from after reading my blog. That’s all I ask.

Also, storytelling has helped me rethink a lot of my previously held beliefs. I used to think the reason why antitheists rant about religion so much is because they think they’re intellectually superior to everyone else. This may be true in some cases, but Graham’s story reminded me that, while I’m lucky not to have been raised in a religiously abusive environment, some aren’t so lucky. Although I still don’t identify as an antitheist, stories like Graham’s remind me sometimes religion causes more pain and damage than I can ever imagine.

While facts and logic are great ways to spread critical thinking, storytelling can be just as effective, if not more. And with social media, we have countless ways to tell our stories. So what story will you tell?

Saturday, November 7, 2015

My Awkward Exchange With Peter Boghossian About Trigger Warnings

Philosophy professor Dr. Peter Boghossian has been on an anti-trigger warning kick lately. Last week on The Thinking Atheist, he briefly mentioned how trigger warnings and safe spaces are preventing students from learning what they need to learn, and he went into further detail on The Humanist Hour this past week. As I listened to Boghossian talk to Bo Bennett and Kim Ellington, I couldn’t help but think he was being a Chicken Little. But, of course, you never want to base an opinion on mere assumption, so I decided to do some investigating and see if there’s a middle ground in the debate surrounding trigger warnings in the classroom. After doing research and reading articles from both sides, I realized 1). the issue is a lot more complicated than I originally thought, and 2). trigger warnings might help some, but it’s not the final solution. So I wrote an article about it, and sent it to the Editor in Chief of The Humanist. She says she’s swamped right now, so she hasn’t had time to read it yet, but hopefully it will be online next week.

Anyway, yesterday I decided to initiate a conversation with Boghossian about the subject. I figured it worked for Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz, so it should work for us, right? Besides, Boghossian is a big supporter of using the Socratic Method and using dialogue to get people to rethink their beliefs. so if I’m wrong he would ask me a question that would get me to rethink my position.

Well, it started off simple enough:

“My interview with the Humanist Hour #SafeSpaces #RegressiveLeft #TriggerWarnings... “--@peterboghossian

“@peterboghossian You think we can reach a middle ground? Or is it all or nothing? I believe in the former, personally.”--@tmamone 

“@tmamone what would that look like?”--@peterboghossian

“@peterboghossian Glad you asked because I wrote about it for the Humanist! It should be online next week.”--@tmamaone

“@peterboghossian But here's a preview. Maybe some trigger warnings, BUT more importantly better mental health services on campus.”--@tmamone

Well, what happened next was a huge disappointment:

“. @tmamone I include a trigger warning on every syllabus. ‘TRIGGER WARNING: THIS ENTIRE CLASS IS A TRIGGER WARNING’”--@peterboghossian

Which was retweeted by everyone, including Richard Dawkins:

Of course, I remained polite:

“@peterboghossian Well like I said, the article should be online next week (Jen Bardi hasn't had time to read it yet).”--@tmamone

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not disappointed that Boghossian disagreed with me. I have no problem with people disagreeing with me if they give me some evidence that I’m wrong. However, I felt like his response was just pure snark, which is strange for someone who preaches using the Socratic Method so much.

I wasn’t the only one who smelled something fishy, either:

“this prof’s attitude is the most shameful thing about being in academia. so many profs belittling their students.”--@jtth

“@jtth @peterboghossian Yeah, for someone who emphasizes civil dialogue in street epistemology, that was a dick move.”--@tmamone

Which then led to this exchange: 

“@tmamone @jtth Blunt speech is crucial. Bluntness is not disrespectful. If you’re in an environment where that’s not allowed, it’s trauma”--@peterboghossian

“@peterboghossian Look, you have every right to say whatever you want, and I have every right to say, ‘Being snarky is a shitty argument.’”--@tmamone

“@tmamone it’s not about rights. Being in an environment that protects one from self-reflection has consequences.”--@peterboghossian

“@peterboghossian I know that. I'm constantly challenging my own beliefs. You just automatically assumed I'm a stupid SJW so #ByeFelicia!”--@tmamone

Which is a lot better than how I would have reacted months ago. Back then, I would have cursed him out and really embarrassed myself!

Once again, I’m not upset because someone disagreed with me on the Internet. I just feel like what would have been a great conversation and a chance to learn from each other turned into another case of, “Haha, look at the stupid SJW!” Maybe I’m misinterpreting Boghossian’s intentions, but to me it felt like he was more interested in being right than educating people. Kinda felt like he was also strawmanning me, too.

I guess I won’t be downloading his new app after all.