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American Atheists, I Am Disappoint




A Disappoint BEAST Editorial

A couple of recent events have me disappointed in American Atheists. I agree with most of what they do, but being a skeptic means you have to call bullshit when you see it, even when it’s coming from friends.

First of all!

And I like to think that I’m friends with American Atheists. A couple of weeks ago BEAST contributor Joe Dixon and I interviewed their President Dave Silverman. At one point I asked a question about how civil rights struggles against segregation and for marriage equality might not be the best comparison to make when talking about the secular cause. I said that the difference as I saw it was that there’s an “element of choice” in being an atheist while traits like race, ethnicity, and sexual preferences are genetically caused.

I think Silverman misunderstood what I was trying to say, or maybe I just didn’t express myself clearly. But he seemed to think I was saying that we can choose what we find to be convincing. What I meant was more like that we can choose to re-evaluate our beliefs. People can enter into or leave a faith later in life and for the most part we accept their sincerity. But when someone says that they’ve prayed away their homosexuality, we rightfully tend to think they’re full of shit. That’s what I meant by there being an element of choice inre: theism where it doesn’t exist in other civil rights issues.

So at first I thought I just didn’t convey that very well in the moment and that Silverman misunderstood me. But it seems like his organization understood what it means to have a choice when it comes to re-examining one’s theism:

This billboard and a similar one with a Hebrew translation went up in NYC neighborhoods just ten days after I posted our Silverman interview (at least one of them did). Maybe he wanted to take my poorly worded question as an opportunity to counter a popular misconception theists have about atheists, i.e. that we’re just being rebellious for its own sake and are choosing to say we don’t believe in God in order to spite Yahweh and make Jesus cry. That possibility is why I didn’t mention this earlier. But then…

And Another Thing!

Just yesterday, this popped up on my Twitter timeline:

Tom Harkin is a US Senator (D-IA). Those of us who follow skeptics’ issues might recognize his name from when he tried to get alternative medicine covered under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka OBAMMERCARE. Harkin’s amendment ultimately failed, so fortunately none of us are going to be compelled to subsidize the quackery industry. But if Harkin had his way, we would.

Remember, this is the Reason Rally. I thought the point was to advocate for reason-based policy in our government. That’s why it’s taking place in Washington, DC. It’s not just to celebrate atheism – which would be a fine goal in itself. So why have someone who’s known as an opponent of evidence-based politics give a video greeting there? Is it so we can throw tomatoes at the screen?

And it’s not like the rally’s desperate for congressional cred. Representative Pete Stark of California (D-Oakland) is already slated to give a video testimonial and, unlike Harkin, he’s an out atheist who’s taken no anti-science positions – as far as I can tell.

Back in 2009, skeptic bloggers rightfully lost their shit when Atheist Alliance International gave an atheist award to Bill Maher for his movie Religulous. Part of the award had to do with advocating science and, like Harkin, Maher is a promoter of woo medicine. Although he’s pretty influential in a way, Maher’s just a talk show host. Harkin is an actual politician. And a Senator, at that. He’s one of the 100 most powerful legislators in America. But so far I haven’t heard a peep about Harkin addressing the Reason Rally.

[UPDATE] I forgot to also point out that Harkin was instrumental in creating the NIH Office of Alternative Medicine in 1992. And it’s not like he was just out to test whether or not alt-med worked, because he later lamented the fact that none of his nonsense could be validated with empirical evidence.


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  • Melody Hensley

    I could not choose to believe in a god anymore than I could convince myself that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden. Fighting for the rights of nonbelievers is a civil rights issue. Whether you think the comparison was tasteful or inaccurate in some other way is a different story.

    • http://www.buffalobeast.com/ Josh Bunting

      @Melody Hensley – I agree on both, but I’d say it’s more inaccurate and misleading than distasteful.

  • Melody Hensley

    Distasteful rather.

  • Melody Hensley

    Harkin should be disinvited immediately unless they change the name to the Atheist Rally.

  • Jesse

    As a point of clarification, Sen. Harkin is offering ‘a’ video greeting, not ‘the’ greeting. Rep. Pete Stark is giving another one, and there will be other video messages from notable people around the country.

    The tweet didn’t make that clear, but Pete Stark’s already been announced about a month and a half ago (pdf: http://reasonrally.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/PeteStarkReleaseRR.pdf)

  • http://www.buffalobeast.com/ Josh Bunting

    Thanks Jesse, I thought I mentioned that. Will fix now

  • Jesse

    Sure thing Josh! One more point though – the paragraph:

    “And it’s not as if there’s no other option. Representative Pete Stark of California (D-Oakland) is, unlike Harkin, an out atheist. And also unlike Harkin he has taken no anti-science positions, at least as far as I can tell.”

    Doesn’t make much sense to me, since Rep. Pete Stark *IS* sending a video message. That’s why I mentioned that he’ll be sending one of his own. Is it still a salient point to you?

    I’m one of the volunteers for the Reason Rally, and just wanted to clear that up. Thanks for all you do!

  • clearthinker

    Alternative medicine is just as “evidence-based” as much of mainstream medicine. The lack of clarity on this issue sort of refutes your whole article.

  • S

    Of course, it’s a civil rights issue, in the sense that it is a free speech/assembly/right to redress grievances, etc. issue.

    However, it is NOT a civil rights issue in the same way that civil rights movements for black people and gay people are. To say otherwise is flat out crazy, obnoxious and arrogantly retarded.

  • admin

    @Jesse: Thanks, we missed that Stark announcement. Fixed!

  • admin

    @clearthinker: No it’s not.

  • Pingback: A Senator Agrees to Appear by Video at the Reason Rally but His ‘Reason’ Credentials Are In Doubt | Friendly Atheist

  • Melody Hensley

    Atheists are the most hated minority in the country, largely unable to hold public office. There is such a stigma that atheists are often disowned by their families, friends, and communities. You may think calling it a civil rights issue is obnoxious, but it’s most certainly the truth. If you think it’s not, I suspect that you come from some place of privilege (i.e. living in a liberal community or being religious yourself).

  • Melody Hensley

    I don’t see how inviting Pete Stark or any other speaker helps the case of Reason Rally organizers inviting a champion for alternative medicine to the rally. I think it’s appalling given that Harkin’s position on alternative medicine is in direct opposition to two of the sponsoring organizations missions.

  • http://buffalobeast.com/?tag=caigoy-authors Mike C.

    @ Admin

    Re: Alternative medicine

    What? There’s plenty of evidence… that it doesn’t work.

  • http://youtu.be/f5S5LpLhqpg Joe Dixon

    Good catch, Josh. I wonder why, exactly, is Harkin addressing the crowd at all? Could the the Reason Rally be tossing aside ‘reason’ and just looking for names to give the event greater credence? I know one thing, if the Iowa Senators woo wasn’t caught, then you can bet a speaker or two will probably end up in those very waters.

  • Anthony

    If I had anything to say about it zero politicians would be invited to speak at that rally, either live or via video. What can they possibly add to the event? If I traveled all the way out there I’d much rather just listen to PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss and Bad Religion. Literally no one there is going to give a shit about any politician deigning to grace them with a video greeting; it’ll be emo eyerolls, sighs of contempt, and move-it-along hand gestures all around. I wish I could be there.

  • Yi Dahl

    From what you say and what I gather, then you say the Plattsburgh Republican is wrong not to run Gary T.’s strip. Am I right in this conclusion?

  • http://acksisofevil.org/innerside.html Scooter

    Alternative medicine quack at the reason rally.
    Skeptics Guide to the Woo-niverse.

    There’s a name for alternative medicine that has proven eifficacy. It’s called MEDICINE.

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