Michael Nugent sums up last year in atheism, and gives us 5 goals for the coming year

Michael Nugent, writer and atheist/secular activist, is a man to admire. Head of Atheist Ireland, he’s far more than a “keyboard activist,” spending much of his time lobbying the Irish government and the European Union for more rights for atheists and secularists, campaigning for the removal of religion from government, and fighting Ireland’s anti-abortion and anti-blasphemy laws.

I won’t go into how he’s been vilified by certain dark and benighted corners of the atheist community, but if you have any doubts that, unlike his critics, Nugent is an activist who actually works to change society rather than smearing his fellow atheists, read the recent post on his website, “My review of 2015 for atheists and secularists.” (Warning: it’s long, for Michael is not a man of few words.) You’ll be amazed at how much stuff he and Atheist Ireland have been up to over the last year (there are, of course, descriptions of events beyond Ireland). He and his colleagues are in some tough battles, but they keep on fighting.

Below, for example, is a photo of Nugent with Taoiseach [Irish Prime Minister] Enda Kenny and Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan after the first meeting in the history of Ireland between the head of state and an atheist group. Nugent and Atheist Ireland were there to lay out a secular agenda, pressing the country to respect the rights of nonbelievers. You’ll recognize Nugent because he always wears a red polo shirt—even when meeting with the Taoiseach!

AI-Taoiseach-2-1024x552

But even if you don’t have time to peruse the doings of Atheist Ireland, you should definitely read Nugent’s shorter post from yesterday, “Five challenges for atheists and secularists in 2016.”  It’s a good list, and I’ll reproduce it with very brief extracts from Nugent’s explanation. I agree with every one of his challenges—down the line. His words are indented.

1. Oppose the silencing word ‘Islamophobia’

We should reject and challenge the use of the word ‘Islamophobia’. It is typically used to conflate two ideas (criticism of Islam, which is just, and bigotry towards Muslims, which is unjust) and it uses language that suggests that those who criticise Islam have a mental illness.

By building the term around the word ‘Islam’ rather than the word ‘Muslim’, some people can use it to try to silence criticism of Islam, even when that criticism is aimed at protecting Muslims, who are the most common victims of Islamic human rights abuses.

I support the idea of popularising a phrase to describe and oppose bigotry towards Muslims as people. I strongly oppose the ideas of ‘anti-Muslimism’ or ‘anti-Muslim bigotry’ as unjust and harmful. But I reject the idea of ‘Islamophobia’, because criticism of Islam is reasonable and necessary.

2. Promote robust civil dialogue not Internet rage

We should robustly promote our ideas, and oppose ideas with which we disagree, while remaining civil and respectful to the people with whom we are disagreeing. This can be hardest to do online, where shock-bloggers and internet mobs prefer to promote Internet rage.

Nugent then gives some examples of destructive internet rage, followed by useful tips on how to behave when engaging in online debate; and he finishes with the following:

None of this is to suggest that we should silence ourselves, or allow ourselves to be silenced, when opposing harmful ideas either online or offline. In particular, Universities should be prepared to host events at which speakers cause offence to people who do not share their beliefs, as long as such events do not break the laws of the land or incite violence or crime.

This is important because universities are not the same as private bodies with their own political agendas. Universities are public bodies that should foster freedom of expression, and encourage critical thinking and intellectual growth among students and staff.

3. Normalise the use of the word atheism

We should try to normalise the use of the word atheism in public discourse. Some atheists believe that it is more pragmatic to use softer words, like humanist or freethinker or nonreligious, to avoid the prejudice that some people associate with the word atheism.

But those linguistic retreats merely reinforce the prejudice against atheists, despite us having a reasonable and philosophically defensible worldview that is proportionate to the evidence. There is considerably more evidence that humans invented the idea of gods than there is that gods actually exist.

The unjust prejudice against atheists will continue for as long as nobody sees us doing constructive things while self-identifying as atheists. Indeed, the only way to gradually chip away at the prejudice is for us to be seen to self-identify as atheists while doing constructive things.

This message, I believe, is also central in Dave Silverman’s new book, Fighting God: An Atheist Manifesto for a Religious World (I haven’t yet read it but will.) If you do so without alienating your family, friends, and coworkers, I think it’s important to use “atheist” as a self-descriptor. The more often we do it, the more likely others will be willing to follow. I know that because I’ve heard from many, especially in the American South, how they’ve been heartened to “come out” by seeing others do it. But of course atheism isn’t a full-time job: it’s merely a lack of belief in gods. Secularism can be a full-time job (witness organizations like the Freedom from Religion Foundation), and both atheism and secularism are promoted by social changes described in Nugent’s last two challenges:

4. Promote fundamental human rights

We should promote internationally agreed human rights, particularly the right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief, the right to equality before the law, the right to freedom from discrimination, the right to private and family life, the right to freedom of expression, and the right to an effective remedy to vindicate rights that are breached.

The 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights is a strong foundation upon which to build ethical secular policies, along with the two main treaties that seek to implement it: the International Covenant on Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. There are also other agreements based on particular areas of rights.

While these agreements are not perfect, they provide the strongest approximation we have to a set of human rights that can be objectively monitored.

I’ve used the term “social justice warrior” as a pejorative term, referring to those who give lip service to these rights but never do anything substantive to promote them. I’ve stopped using that term simply because I do believe in social justice, and don’t want it part of a phrase used as criticism. I may simply replace it with “keyboard warrior,” though even that’s not quite accurate since that’s what progressive journalists are.

Further, it’s clear by now that we’ll never rid the world of faith and its inimical effects until the conditions that promote religion—social inequality and social injustice—are ameliorated. That was one of Marx’s most profound realizations, now supported by data from the social sciences. Read Marx’s famous quote in its context:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

5. Promote ethical secular democracy

With human rights standards as our foundation, we should build on that foundation by actively promoting fair and just societies, governed by ethical secular democracies. We should each do this as individuals, and some atheist groups may also choose to do so collectively. We can each share this goal while having different specific ideas about how best to pursue it.

Nugent then gives three benefits of secularism followed by a list of ways to promote ethical secular democracy.

Michael’s article is a good way to start the year, and a good tonic to pep us up for the coming battles. He’s one of the good ones.

105 Comments

  1. mordacious1
    Posted January 2, 2016 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    “Promote robust civil dialogue not Internet rage”.

    Indeed.

  2. Paulo Augusto Franke
    Posted January 2, 2016 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Yay, Mike Nugent’s goals are definitely a good start for 2016.
    I particularly enjoyed seeing a Karl Marx’s quote appearing in a mainstream, respected American blog. Is this actually allowed, or will the CIA or FBI soon shut down Professor CC (Emeritus)’s WEIT website?
    Being an ardent promoter of getting the West out of the Middle East, this sounds like good music to the brain: “Religious suffering is a protest against real suffering.”
    I would add that extreme religious suffering is an extreme protest against extreme real suffering.
    So one more time, many of these callouts coming in 2016:
    Hey you, West, get the fuck out of the Middle East!

    • EvolvedDutchie
      Posted January 2, 2016 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      I’m very glad that a combination of American soldiers, British SAS and Kurdish fighters were able to save tens of thousands of Yezidi civilans trapped in the Sinjar mountains. Had the Americans and British followed your plan, then the Kurdish fighters and Yezidi civilians had to face ISIl alone. The United States, United Kingdom and other Western countries deserve a lot more praise for the good work they’ve done.

      • Scott Draper
        Posted January 2, 2016 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

        Had the US not been there, there would likely be no ISIS. It’s of dubious merit to help ameliorate a problem that you caused.

        • Scientifik
          Posted January 2, 2016 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

          If the US had not been there, there would not have been 1400 years of bitter tribal conflict in the Middle East?

          • Scott Draper
            Posted January 2, 2016 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

            ISIL is a net change for the worse, compared with those regions being governed by Syria or Iraq.

            • Scientifik
              Posted January 2, 2016 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

              If, as you claim, ISIS was created by the US, it’s rather immoral of you to suggest that the culprit should now shirk responsibility for rectifying the mess it caused.

              • Scott Draper
                Posted January 2, 2016 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

                I didn’t suggest that.

              • Scientifik
                Posted January 2, 2016 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

                That’s how I understood your earlier comment, when you said “It’s of dubious merit to help ameliorate a problem that you caused.”

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted January 2, 2016 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

        It should also be remembered that the West is currently in Iraq because Iraq asked them to come and help. We are there at Iraq’s invitation. Any changes to personnel, mission, etc. are made only with the agreement and cooperation of the Iraqi government, via an initial request from them.

        • Scientifik
          Posted January 2, 2016 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

          Paulo apparently wants to leave the task of stabilizing the situation in the region to Assad, Erdogan, and Putin… such great forces for good!

          • Heather Hastie
            Posted January 2, 2016 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

            Yeah! The West has stuffed up big time in many ways, but we do appear to be learning from our mistakes, and at least (as Sam Harris points out) our intentions are good.

            • Scott Draper
              Posted January 2, 2016 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

              How noble are “good intentions” when any realistic analysis of the likely result is the death of thousands and thousands of innocents?

              Noam Chomsky took Harris to task for defending these sorts of policies.

              • Scientifik
                Posted January 2, 2016 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

                The problem is Noam Chomsky has no policy ideas of his own, no solutions, no nothing.

              • Scott Draper
                Posted January 2, 2016 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

                True, but that doesn’t invalidate his criticism. (I don’t actually like Chomsky very much, but he usually has something interesting to say.)

              • Scientifik
                Posted January 2, 2016 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

                It actually invalidates his criticism because it’s completely unproductive.

              • Scott Draper
                Posted January 2, 2016 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

                Criticism is not invalid because it fails to offer an alternative.

              • Scientifik
                Posted January 2, 2016 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

                After the fact complaining about the undertaken moves is of little value. Especially, if you don’t offer any alternative strategies for future action.

              • Scott Draper
                Posted January 2, 2016 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

                The person receiving the criticism can alter future behavior.

              • Scientifik
                Posted January 2, 2016 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

                Noam Chomsky seems to be critical of every move the US, Britain and France make. Maybe the West could heed his advice, if he had any.

              • Scientifik
                Posted January 2, 2016 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

                The war on radical Islam is not being won, and we don’t need professor Chomsky to tell us this. Everybody who watches the situation in Somalia (with al Shabaab), in Nigeria (with Boko Haram), in Turkey (with the loose cannon president Erdogan), in Saudi Arabia (with its Wahhabi radicals), in Egypt (with the Muslim Brotherhood), in Afghanistan (with the Taliban), everyone who is aware of the unceasing bloodshed between Sunni and Shia muslims, the existence of countless other Islamist organizations such as al Qaeda, Hamas, etc and is also witness to the islamization of Sweden, France, Belgium, Germany, the UK and sees how these Western countries are being terrorized by sharia thumpers can see it alright.

              • Scott Draper
                Posted January 2, 2016 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

                Your comments are rambling and off point. Chomsky’s main observation is that the “good guys” have killed far more innocent people than the “bad guys”.

              • Scientifik
                Posted January 3, 2016 at 5:48 am | Permalink

                He’s completely delusional if he believes so, and still hasn’t come up with anything resembling a coherent strategy for dealing with radical Islam spreading throughout the world.

              • Heather Hastie
                Posted January 3, 2016 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

                There is a problem with good intentions, and I know about Chomsky’s criticisms, but they do make a difference. Too much of the analysis of the far left is too black and white imo, and although Chomsky has made many valid points, I don’t have that much time for someone who thinks domestic terrorism is a legitimate tactic.

              • Scott Draper
                Posted January 3, 2016 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

                So you think it’s OK to kill tens of thousands of civilians, even though it’s not our primary intent?

              • Heather Hastie
                Posted January 3, 2016 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

                Of course not! I’m appalled by what was done. I was always opposed to the Iraq war, and I’m proud that my country didn’t get involved.

                As I’m sure you’d agree, there are no simple answers. I’m not getting at you personally either – I like most of your comments on this site! I just feel like sometimes it’s made to seem like everything would be OK if there had been no Western interference, and that’s simply not true.

              • Scott Draper
                Posted January 3, 2016 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

                I’m not sure anyone is naive enough to think it would be OK in that region without western involvement, but that still leaves a lot of room for us having made things much worse. 🙂

                It’s also not clear to me that western intervention is ever 100% well-intentioned, no matter what we claim.

        • Scott Draper
          Posted January 2, 2016 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

          “Iraq asked them ”

          Er, the request by a US puppet government.

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted January 2, 2016 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

            By that measure, Austria requested the Anschluss (which still puts me in violation of Godwin’s law, I suppose.)

            • Scott Draper
              Posted January 3, 2016 at 12:37 am | Permalink

              You didn’t actually say “Nazi”.

          • Heather Hastie
            Posted January 3, 2016 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

            They’re more strongly influenced by Shi’a Iran. That’s one of the biggest reasons the country became such a mess. And they were democratically elected.

            • Scott Draper
              Posted January 3, 2016 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

              Banned political parties and many more banned candidates, and the country still has US forces inside. Not really fertile ground for democracy.

  3. Historian
    Posted January 2, 2016 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Certainly, atheists should not shy away from calling themselves such out of fear of offending or alienating non-atheists (point 3 of Nugent’s post). But, I don’t consider the words atheist and humanist to be synonymous. The word humanist can have many different definitions. I define a humanist as a person who believes that the affairs of the world must and should be conducted without reference or supplication to a deity. Thus, all atheists are humanists, but not all humanists are necessarily atheists. Some humanists may believe in some sort of deity, but essentially ignore him in their daily lives. I also think that most humanists think of themselves as people who would like to make a positive contribution to improving the world, but it is possible that some humanists don’t believe this.

    • mordacious1
      Posted January 2, 2016 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

      Every time I consider calling myself a humanist, I read one of their manifestos and change my mind.

    • Diane G.
      Posted January 3, 2016 at 1:26 am | Permalink

      “Thus, all atheists are humanists, but not all humanists are necessarily atheists.”

      Yes, and “religious humanism” (Wikipedia has an interesting entry on this) is actually older than non-religious, IIRC.

    • Michael Nugent
      Posted January 4, 2016 at 8:53 am | Permalink

      I agree that all humanists are not atheists. Some secular humanists today use Capital-H Humanist to differentiate their secular humanism, but even all secular humanists are not atheists.

      My suggestion was aimed at those who consider themselves to be both atheist and humanist, but who shy away from expressing the atheist part of their identity.

      • Posted January 4, 2016 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

        “even all secular humanists are not atheists”

        Are you distinguishing between atheists and agnostics, Michael, or are you saying that there are some secular humanists that /do/ believe in (a) god(s)?

        /@

  4. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted January 2, 2016 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    Every one of his statements are beautifully said, and are entirely reasonable. That was some pleasurable readin’.

  5. Bill Rabara
    Posted January 2, 2016 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    “I support the idea of popularising a phrase to describe and oppose bigotry towards Muslims as people”

    A noble cause. Many liberals give me humor when they oppose muslim bigotry and do not appear to oppose bigotry toward Christians as people. The case is usually quite the contrary.

    • Michael Nugent
      Posted January 4, 2016 at 8:54 am | Permalink

      I think this is quite important. Not only in terms of non-Muslims opposing bigotry towards Muslims, but also in terms of Shias opposing bigotry towards Sunnis and vice versa.

  6. Posted January 2, 2016 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    Sub

  7. Posted January 2, 2016 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    SJW=Social Justice Wafflers. I coined that term after concluding that these high-conflict individuals have no sustained motivation to achieve anything else than wasting their time and yours. Obsessively focused on individuals and issues, they are unable to formulate problem-solving ideas.

  8. Posted January 2, 2016 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    sub

  9. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted January 2, 2016 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    You may think Nugent is too pale to wear a red polo shirt, but the closeup photo on his site shows that it is a good choice.

    I am off to catch up on his texts! (I will be a while, I see.)

    • Scott Draper
      Posted January 2, 2016 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      Yes, it worked well for Gilligan.

      • Torbjörn Larsson
        Posted January 2, 2016 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

        As in “Gilligan’s Island” I assume? Google responds with that and photos of a red sweater.

        Sorry, I don’t know that reference, so I am unable to interpret your comment.

        • Torbjörn Larsson
          Posted January 2, 2016 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

          I should say “photos of a _man in_ red sweater”. So maybe that is “Gilligan”?

        • Scott Draper
          Posted January 2, 2016 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

          Gilligan is an American TV icon. He didn’t wear a sweater, but a long sleeve polo.

          • Torbjörn Larsson
            Posted January 2, 2016 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

            Thanks!

            [But I still don’t know what to make of your comment in case it was meant for me. I am now provisionally assuming it wasn’t but some point on US culture.]

            • Scott Draper
              Posted January 2, 2016 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

              It was a joke that missed its audience. 🙂

              • Ken Daniels
                Posted January 2, 2016 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

                I appreciate a surprise Gilligan reference!

            • Ken Kukec
              Posted January 2, 2016 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

              Not even The Professor would know what to make of that — hell, not even if The Professor were to sneak back to the mainland during a commercial break and take a post-graduate humanities seminar in decontextualized cultural sub-referencing. 🙂

    • Posted January 2, 2016 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      Do we (Jerry? Or likely Grania?) know why Michael always wears a red polo shirt?

      /@

  10. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted January 2, 2016 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    Re goal #3 on normalizing the word “atheist”.

    There’a a part in Julia Sweeney’s “Letting Go of God” in which she relates a conversation with her mother in which the latter says,
    “I can understand not believing in God, but…an Atheist??” (oft quoted with fondness by Richard Dawkins).

    This is the principle reason why Eugenie Scott prefers not to identify as an atheist, because she says it implies one is anti-religious, and she says she is not per se anti-religion.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted January 2, 2016 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

      I think when the word “atheist” is normalized, it doesn’t have the anti-religion connotation.

      However, I have a bit of difficulty with what I just wrote too – as an atheist I’m anti-religion, but not (necessarily) anti-religious people. That’s an important difference. It’s also the same as what Nugent has expressed about the word “Islamophobia”.

    • Filippo
      Posted January 2, 2016 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

      I’m inclined to think that “skeptic” is a reasonably good moniker to continue to go with until sufficiently persuaded otherwise. That is, something is not true simply and solely because someone SAYS, or “KNOWS,” so. (Who here has not heard some religioso say, “I KNOW”?) Evidence (and proof), please.

      I’ve run into several people during my lifetime, both personally and professional, who will say just bloody anything. I’ve given some of them the benefit of the doubt, to my detriment, to the extent that abody ought to try to give the benefit of the doubt. I figure I’ve paid my dues there. I used to take offense at my grandfather’s default suspicious behavior. In my own “older age” anymore, not so much.

      Regarding Nugent’s views on “islamophobia”: Does anyone deny that Islamofascism exists? I think that the word “Islamofascism” should be used to describe the phenomenon. I find myself feeling intensely phobic to Islamofascism. Therefore, I think that the use of the term “Islamofascismphobia,” no matter how awkward, is warranted.

      • Posted January 2, 2016 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

        “Skeptic” doesn’t really do the job; there are many who self identify as skeptics who are nonetheless religious. (As evidenced by a show of hands at TAM London.)

        /@

        • Posted January 2, 2016 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

          Plus, there are atheists who aren’t thoroughgoing skeptics in other areas of their lives. One can not believe in gods, but still be irrational, paranoid, gullible, and delusional about plenty of other things. People can be atheistic by default, without necessarily having gotten there through conscious, considered skepticism–they may simply have never had a religious education or upbringing in the first place.

          I don’t think we need to run away from the word “atheist.” We just have to challenge people’s assumptions and stereotypes about what the word means.

          • Torbjörn Larsson
            Posted January 2, 2016 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

            I too am inclined to think of skepticism as a good moniker. Moreover, as I have stated here a few months back I have tentatively found it useful to switch from describing myself as “atheist” to “skeptic”.

            The main reason is that I think there is now, actually going back two centuries, the same quality of evidence that “nature is … nature”, to paraphrase Minchkin’s “Storm”, as any other observational fact and theory. Of course there isn’t any explicit lemma or work that goes into that, but it is implicit in the functioning of theories from thermodynamics to (especially) QFT where all interactions are explicitly accounted for.

            A secondary reason is that Nugent and many with him characterize atheism as a (pure) philosophic position. That is very philosophical, theological and accommodationist, but not very empirically plausible at the current width and robustness of science.

            So some good points:

            – ““Skeptic” doesn’t really do the job; there are many who self identify as skeptics who are nonetheless religious.”

            Well, but they are not True Skeptics™.

            I invoke Jerry’s “Faith vs Fact” as evidence that they are not using their avowed skepticism equally on religion as on other areas. That is something they should aim to do, if they are visiting TAM say, since acknowledged skeptic organizations accept science as their basis.

            – “I don’t think we need to run away from the word “atheist.” We just have to challenge people’s assumptions and stereotypes about what the word means.”

            That goes for the word “skeptic” as well of course.

            So those of us who likes “skeptic” as a better label should challenge stereotyping of skepticism and try to normalize its use.

            Now skeptic organizations have all sorts of uses (supporting science is a major one), so it is a mess. You wouldn’t want to harass religious. But fragmented atheism is also a mess, and there are similar problems there.

            • Posted January 2, 2016 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

              But “skepticism” is far broader than “atheism”, as it rejects (when rigorously applied) all supernaturalism, pseudoscience, and other kinds of woo, not just the notion of one or many gods. So, in any religious context, “atheism” provides a clearer, more readily understood indication of one’s views.

              /@

              • Diane G.
                Posted January 3, 2016 at 1:54 am | Permalink

                + 1

                “Atheism” is really the only word that means simply “no belief in deities.” All the other substitutes have at least one, often several additional implications.

          • Posted January 2, 2016 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

            Quite so! I’d suggest that the majority of atheists in at least Western Europe did not “get there” through skeptical reasoning.

            /@

      • Michael Nugent
        Posted January 4, 2016 at 8:59 am | Permalink

        It partly depends on the context of the conversation. There are times when it would be appropriate told describe yourself as an atheist, times when it would be better to describe yourself as a skeptic, and times when it might be best told describe yourself as a an atheist skeptic or skeptical atheist.

    • Mark R.
      Posted January 2, 2016 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

      I think to many, atheism also connotes nihilism. I fight that whenever I hear it.

      • Posted January 2, 2016 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

        You say that like nihilism is a bad thing.

        /@

        • rickflick
          Posted January 2, 2016 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

          “nihilism : the rejection of all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless”.

          Some of the definition suits me fine, but I’d say having no moral principles could get you in trouble.

          • Scott Draper
            Posted January 2, 2016 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

            Interesting to compare that definition with “moral nihilism”. On Wikipedia, the latter is described as “nothing is intrinsically moral or immoral”, which strikes me as different from having no moral principles.

            • Torbjörn Larsson
              Posted January 2, 2016 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

              And it shows how it fails to adhere to atheism, since there is ample evidence of evolved, even shared, moral behavior in biology. Evolution is “intrinsically moral” in the sense that moral behavior is a possible outcome.

              Worse, to join in with rickflick, some moral behavior is “intrinsic” (genetic) in humans, conversely we would not be humans without morals.

              As usual I find philosophy a bad fit to science and nature. (But that is me.)

              • Posted January 2, 2016 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

                I’m not sure that’s the sense of “intrinsic” meant in the Wp article. Morality is clearly a product of not only our genes (and we see “moral” behaviour in our genetic cousins) but also our memes (culture), as it varies over time and space. It’s “clearly” an intersubjective construct.

                /@

              • peepuk
                Posted January 3, 2016 at 6:54 am | Permalink

                Rascism is shared and evolved but that doesn’t make it in anyway *good*.

                Moral nihilism is 100% compliant with science, the alternatives moral-universalism and moral-relativism in many cases not.

          • Posted January 2, 2016 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

            Well, that might depend on what you mean by “moral principles”. Wiktionary restricts the meaning to “inherent or objective” moral principles. Rejecting theses doesn’t mean you cannot be “moral” or, better, ethical.

            /@

        • Posted January 3, 2016 at 2:16 am | Permalink

          As a man who just went out drinking with a married friend of mine and her friend, who at age 36 discovered Richard Dawkins and The God Delusion, I can attest that it definitely isn’t a de facto bad thing. Think of the salacious rumors religious folks would spread about such an outing. In case your mind is wandering at this point, nothing salacious happened. And isn’t that the point? None of this will matter 100 years from now. Why should I care if a religious prude thinks my going out with a married woman is immoral? Her husband didn’t care, my wife didn’t care, end of story. There is no grand meaning to what we do in our personal lives. Nihilism doesn’t necessarily entail that everything is meaningless. To me, it only entails that you have no one to answer to when you do as you damn well fucking please and you aren’t upsetting anyone.

          • Mark R.
            Posted January 3, 2016 at 11:26 am | Permalink

            There are many takes on nihilism it seems, and I see where there are differences in definition and opinion. I tend to regard nihilism as ‘bad’ within rickflick’s quoted definition; since nothing has ultimate meaning, life is meaningless. This is what I reject. For most people I know (especially the religious) nihilism does entail that everything is meaningless. From the comments, I understand how nihilism doesn’t have to be meaninglessness.

    • Posted January 4, 2016 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      I think we need to popularize the term “areligious” as well, because there are certainly atheists in the etymological sense who are religious and theists who are not religious (or vanishingly so).

  11. Posted January 2, 2016 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Nina's Soap Bubble Box and commented:
    Religion is mental illness.

  12. ianlib
    Posted January 2, 2016 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Since you mentioned David Silverman`s new book, I want to mention his lack of scientific care when describing Judaism.I loved David’s book but his use of the Eran Elhaik`s debunked Khazarian Hypothesis of the location or non location of genetic links between Jews has been debunked over and over again by every major geneticist including the Genetic Literacy Project. They all agree there is not a genetic Jew gene but the links between the groups are present with connecting traits present. http://www.forbes.com/sites/jonentine/2013/05/16/israeli-researcher-challenges-jewish-dna-links-to-israel-calls-those-who-disagree-nazi-sympathizers/ and https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2014/09/23/are-modern-jews-converted-khazarian-pagans-more-evidence-of-middle-eastern-roots/ Also Humanistic Judiasm has filled the needs for the who do not pray or do not believe in the supernatural or in God. Humanistic Judaism is evidence based and David should have done his research on Eran Elhaik. It is still best book I have ever read on the subject of atheism and our goals to make a secular and evidence based society .

  13. Posted January 2, 2016 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this post.

    Civil discourse is critical.

    At present Nissan Taleb is attacking Steve Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, and Sam Harris on Twitter. His behavior is unethical and unbecoming of senior scientist. It models the use of insult, name-calling, and a witch hint to go after those Taleb deems as less rigorous. He’s calling people “imposters” and using the diminutive and sexist term “boy” to refer to Steve and Richard. This teaches his many followers that this conduct is OK. Two of his followers have started to harass me after I responded to Taleb with a plea for civility. His followers have called me a whore, made threatening demands, and insulted my intelligence.

    • Posted January 2, 2016 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

      Sorry, misspelled his first name: should be Nassim.

      I’ve been fairly shaken up by the online dialog, if that is what it can be called. It’s a potent reminder (to me) that, as leaders, others mimic not only our ideas by our styles.

      • Posted January 2, 2016 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

        All I can say is that one (or at least most people) eventually develop a thicker skin after receiving a that kind of invective. Just take Hitchens’s attitude: “My opinion is my own, and that’s enough for me. If you don’t like it, you can take a number, get in line, and kiss my ass.”

        • Posted January 2, 2016 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

          Thank goodness for that strength. Thanks 🙂

          I’ve been trained to look out for the health of the public, so I’m emotionally attuned to misuses of power.

          No doubt Taleb will sell more books with his clickbait Twi**er attacks. And some people will learn more statistics due to his Trump-like insolence. But at what cost? Modeling mistreatment of others attracts attention but teaches verbal abuse at the expense of human dignity and the best ideals of science.

          Or maybe I’m a prude. That’s another insult one of his followers flung at me. According to the Talebverse, I’m a whore and a prude.

          Talking about this does thicken my skin a bit, but I don’t want it to get so thick that I habituate to it.

          • Diane G.
            Posted January 3, 2016 at 2:03 am | Permalink

            “According to the Talebverse, I’m a whore and a prude.”

            Neat trick, that!

            Are any of Taleb’s famous targets replying or are they completely ignoring him as he deserves?

          • Posted January 3, 2016 at 2:40 am | Permalink

            The Taleb-an?!

            /@

          • Scott Draper
            Posted January 3, 2016 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

            “I’m a whore”

            Seems to be a common invective towards women who express their views forcefully in the world. Interesting.

    • Achrachno
      Posted January 2, 2016 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

      Sorry you had to deal with that. Sounds like a little cult has grown up around him. Can’t insult the prophet, you know.

      I wonder why he thinks anyone is less rigorous than he, if he’s dealing in insults and name-calling. It doesn’t get much less rigorous does it?

    • Scott Draper
      Posted January 2, 2016 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

      I’ve just been reading some of his Tweets and I’m thinking “what a jerk”. I’m reading his “Black Swan” right now and he doesn’t come off much better. Much of his prose is dedicated towards praising himself in an indirect manner.

      • Diane G.
        Posted January 3, 2016 at 2:04 am | Permalink

        Bleah. Sounds like Carrier.

    • Posted January 2, 2016 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

      Good grief! Taleb gleefully rubbishes “Twitter trolls” but takes great delight in calling academic peers “imbeciles”, “idiots” and “BS vendors”. What a boor. (Even if he is right about the statistics, which I cannot judge.)

      /@

      • Posted January 2, 2016 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

        “Even if he is right about the statistics, which I cannot judge.”

        I haven’t used the type of statistics he’s employing to go after Steve, but what I can say from having read Taleb’s paper is that he makes a confident and sweeping claim about not seeing a trend in the decline of violence, while only reporting one measure of violence (armed conflicts); he claims to have refuted Steve’s book through the use of a novel statistical procedure, application of “extreme value theory to fat-tailed variables,” in which the real mean (versus use of the sample mean) is derived from the properties of his method to obtain tail properties. This is based on the armed conflicts having what he calls fat tails. His position is that the real mean he obtains from this procedure is more accurate.

        He has a dataset of 565 armed conflicts of at least 3000 deaths from the years 1-2015.

        This said, again, it would take someone as familiar as Taleb is with the methods to judge this fairly, given that it is a novel application of a method. But more so, it requires some kind of replication to be vetted. And replication NOT by the same authors. Commentary on the assumptions that Taleb made and how the data were sliced would also be necessary.

        Right now, Taleb is taking his insider, expert knowledge and beating people with it instead of responding with an explanation that the all of us can understand. It’s a disgrace to the field of statistics, which is so-often interdisciplinary and collaborative.

        • Posted January 2, 2016 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

          If Taleb went after Pinker like that in the first place I can understand why he was rebuffed.

          /@

          >

          • Posted January 3, 2016 at 12:41 am | Permalink

            Taleb has blocked me.

            • Diane G.
              Posted January 3, 2016 at 2:07 am | Permalink

              That sounds like an honor in my book.

            • Posted January 3, 2016 at 2:47 am | Permalink

              Telling.

              /@

          • Scott Draper
            Posted January 3, 2016 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

            A way to raise yourself in the public eye is to attack those more famous than yourself. This seems to have worked for Reza Aslan.

        • Posted January 3, 2016 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

          I saw Sam Harris responded to a couple of Taleb’s insults by linking to a couple of his published papers. Taleb was going after Harris for having “not done science.” Then, he decided in the face of the evidence that Sam Harris has done science that it’s no good because the papers have co-authors.

          I can’t say that I agree that Harris should have engaged in this silly credential mongering game, as Taleb was essentially resorting to appeals to authority. Anyone who is intellectually honest should know better. I know it (despite having not ever published a paper). According to Taleb, the validity of one’s logic rises and falls with credentials. Who knew?

          As for the attacks on Pinker, why is Taleb so focused on armed conflicts? Pinker’s claims about the decrease in violence are much more robust. He covers everyday violence as well, such as violent crimes and murders.

      • Posted January 4, 2016 at 4:46 am | Permalink

        I have the odd habit of liking authors where I find out later they are at war with each other. I also typically find their disagreements manageable. Taleb’s dismissive attitude towards economists was measured even if scathing, but his antics with Pinker et al are dismaying.

    • Scientifik
      Posted January 2, 2016 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

      Interestingly, he goes after people who are all atheists. A coincidence?

      If he learned some statistics during his management/finance studies, that’s fine, but he really need to take a chill pill and read this article carefully:

      http://quixoticfinance.com/empty-statistics/

  14. zytigon
    Posted January 2, 2016 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    Impressive writing by Michael Nugent.

    Nugent spoke well at an Atheist Ireland debate November 2015. See Youtube video,”Is Christianity holding us back? Michael Nugent v David Robertson” Hosted by William Crawley

    An example of good, balanced discussion of various points of view was shown in “The sky at night” show, episode “The real star of Bethlehem, a Christmas special” on BBC4 on 31st December 2015. It looked at some of the possible astronomical candidates for the star. They had Kings college Professor of Christian origins, Joan E. Taylor on with a link to “The Life of Brian” in which she noted the humorous suggestion re. the clip where Brian is whisked up to space by a rocket that the star was a UFO.

    Taylor published a book 2015 on Amazon, “Brian and Jesus: Exploring the historical Jesus and his times via Monty Python’s life of Brian” Bart Ehrman wrote chapter 11 for it;”Brian and the apocalyptic Jesus, parody as historical method” This book was a write up of the conference Taylor organised in 2014 which John Cleese and Terry Jones attended.

    They also had atheist Bible scholar Francesca Stavrakopoulou of Exeter university.

    Aaron Adair wrote a book on the “star of Bethlehem, a skeptical view” which is pretty exhaustive on all the points.

  15. Benjamin
    Posted January 2, 2016 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    Islamophobia is a very poor choice of word for describing anti-Muslim prejudice (a legitimate concern).

    However, it’s very seldom even used in that legitimate context, and almost always used as a way of saying “stop being critical of my religion”.

    Muslims who really are concerned with anti-Muslim prejudice would be well-served by not using it.

    However, there’s a large contingent of Muslim “community leaders” who will never stop using the word for the precise reason that it conflates real prejudice with legitimate criticism.

    • Michael Nugent
      Posted January 4, 2016 at 9:02 am | Permalink

      That’s right, and it is not only Muslim “community leaders” but also Islamic States at the UN and elsewhere.

  16. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted January 2, 2016 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting and informative posts by Nugent. The implosion of Freethoughts Blog had passed me by, but it was helpful for seeing how PZ Myers fared after being reminded of his existence.

    – As far as Google Trends go on searches for Jerry vs PZ, despite PZ starting out 2 years earlier Jerry is now on par. Jerry’s latest book has likely increased the interest a bit, but I refrain from number crunching. [ https://www.google.com/trends/explore#q=%22jerry%20coyne%22%2C%20%22pz%20myers%22&cmpt=q&tz=Etc%2FGMT-1 ; as a comparison if I put “Richard Dawkins” in there it will flatten out the rest at 40 times the search volume.]

    – If PZ is now “~ 90 % of the rest” of the FB traffic, Alexa rates Jerry as on par with PZ as far as US goes. [ http://www.labnol.org/internet/find-website-traffic-hits/8008/ ] We can note an impressive climb of Jerry’s site in 2015 with ~ 2 times the traffic, and an equally impressive implosion of PZ’s site. [ http://www.alexa.com/siteinfo/https%3A%2F%2Fwhyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com ; http://www.alexa.com/siteinfo/http%3A%2F%2Ffreethoughtblogs.com%2Fpharyngula ]

    I can’t share Nugent’s opinions on Tim Hunt and his not-apology of his misogynist joke, nor on world economy [free markets must be controlled, but to be efficient and not because they threaten human rights since that economy helps*]. So I am taking specific comments into the thread.

    * For starters free markets tend to block wars, as I understand it. That is the reason the current genocidal nations and fractions won’t start another world war I read somewhere. When WWI started an average nation had 3-4 other nations as markets but now the average is 10 times that!

    • p. puk
      Posted January 2, 2016 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

      Whenever I feel sad I pop over to Alexa and marvel at PZ’s inevitable descent into obscurity.

      Never fails to cheer me up!

      • Scott Draper
        Posted January 3, 2016 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

        The question is, did PZ learn anything from this? My guess is no.

    • Vaal
      Posted January 3, 2016 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

      The tendency of FreeThought bloggers (and others) to escalate differences of opinion as rapidly as possible into bridge-burning character attacks is perfectly expressed in a recent blog post by PZ Myers, where he excoriated Elon Musk.

      In a GQ interview, Elon worried that progress, both in technological terms and human welfare terms, is not guaranteed to progress. He brought up the worry, for instance, that a third world war could occur before humans have established a sustainable population on Mars, plunging that option into the dustbin.

      For this, PZ Myers didn’t just voice civil disagreement. No, he had to immediately escalate into full-nukes mode with the headline:

      Elon Musk Is A Terrible Human Being.

      WFT? Aside from such an outrageous response to Musk’s worry to begin with, it doesn’t seem to matter whatever accomplishments or aims Musk has had in trying to offer progress, it can all be brushed aside because Musk hasn’t satisfied Myers to every jot and tittle. Say one thing “wrong” and that’ all it takes for you to be cast as a Villain, your entire character impugned, another “other” created for the Rage Machines to feast upon and disparage.

      Fortunately, it seems even PZ’s hordes have mostly felt he went too far and have been calling him on it in the comments sections.

      http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2015/12/15/elon-musk-is-a-terrible-human-being/

      PZ still produces some interesting bog posts, but this tenor of “let’s see who we can rage against today” that runs through the bog is just too off-putting to make regular visits palatable for me.

    • Michael Nugent
      Posted January 4, 2016 at 9:04 am | Permalink

      Torbjorn, I agree with the distinction that you make about the free market.

      With regard to the Tim Hunt incident, did you read the analysis that I linked to of how the story began and spread?


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  1. […] On January 1, Michael Nugent, chairperson of Atheist Ireland, published a post entitled “Five Challenges for Atheists and Secularists in 2016.” Nugent’s post is getting a lot of praise and attention. Hemant Mehta highlighted two of what he calls Nugent’s “big challenges” for 2016 and Jerry Coyne says, […]

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