For "Phil"

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | July 6, 2010 11:43 am

Shortly after moving, I met a new neighbor on my street. He loves astrophysics and we have similar tastes in books and music. His name isn’t Phil, but for the purpose of this post, that’s what I’ll call him.

I like Phil a lot. He’s smart and witty with a healthy dose of skepticism. We run into each other often–in part because we both walk our dogs regularly, but also because he’s hard to miss: Phil nearly always wears one of those black t-shirts with a large red A across the front to express “where his allegiances lie” (his words). He has three of them that he rotates through each week to avoid doing laundry. They all look just the same.

Early on, Phil wanted to know whether I was an atheist too since I’m in science. I explained that I don’t like labels because they mainly serve to divide people one way or another. And then we get war, bigotry, genocide, and so on. I told him how I like the way Vonnegut described Humanism and try to behave decently and fairly while here on Earth. “Kurt’s up in heaven now,” I added. He got the joke.

Yesterday I asked why the A itself was so significant to him that he rarely left the house without it. You might even say he wears it religiously. So how did one symbol become such an enormous part of his identity considering his disdain for other symbols?

Phil paused and shook his head. “I guess I don’t really know. But blog that. See what others say.”

“Okay.” I said. “Tomorrow.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture
MORE ABOUT: atheism, humanism

Comments (89)

  1. Jer

    People love to belong to groups and symbols are a great way to tell others what group you belong to (even if that group is a belief). It says something about you the same way a certain fashion can say something about you. Can’s say I parade around with the big red A, even if that’s what I believe, but during the hockey season I certainly enjoy parading around with a big red C!

  2. I don’t see a big conflict between his love of the “A” and his atheism. Atheism doesn’t mean you don’t believe in symbols, or in groups. It just means you don’t believe in “god” as it’s commonly defined. I do think that Atheists are a marginalized group (see how many openly atheist American Presidents we’ve had) and it’s understandable that some of them would want to “come out” and show others how they feel. The more people who reveal themselves to be atheist, the less atheists have to feel alone – and nobody likes to be lonely.

  3. Jon

    Sounds very Austin. Poor beleaguered Austin. there in the middle of Texas… Someone should do an update of Linklater’s *Slacker* for the Tea Party / post 2009 malaise generation…

  4. MT-LA

    My suggestion is that belief that there is no God (or god, or gods…whatever) is equal to the belief that there is a god. Either way, you’re basing an argument on a belief.
    My suggestion is your friend Phil is religious. Whether he believes in God or believes in not-God is irrelevant. He still believes…not much of a skeptic position.

    -Full disclosure: I’m an agnostic.

  5. bad Jim

    MT-LA is dealing with a straw man. Few atheists assert the non-existence of God. We merely do not believe in any gods.

  6. Granfalloon is right. Zach nailed it beforehand.

    I am an atheist and a humanist, and vocal about it, but I parade at most with a Leonard Cohen 2009 World Tour T-Shirt. Although I have been known to parade at times in a Moody Blues T-shirt, and in a Joy Division one.

  7. MT-LA

    bad Jim: I could be wrong, but I thought that atheist means the opposite of theist. Oh wait…I’m not wrong:
    -dictionary.com-

    a·the·ist
    –noun
    a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings.

    If an atheist is not asserting the non-existence of God, then she is an agnostic. Atheist is just a more vogue, cool guy term for it.

    Jim…would agnostic be a better term for your beliefe?

  8. Just to add:

    “He has three of them that he rotates through each week to avoid doing laundry. They all look just the same.”

    Although this bit reminds me of that Arnold Schwarzenegger film where he steps out of a film and into the real world, courtesy of a kid and a magic cinema ticket; later on after a car chase, he opens his wardrobe to reveal 50 identical red T-shirts and 50 identical pairs of blue jeans.

    Anyway, so far Phil sounds like an OK person, I wouldn’t do things the way he does them, but I am vocal about being an atheist and humanist too, so I can hardly criticise, even if I don’t wear the T-shirt. I don’t see anything wrong with it except possibly the concept of balance in life is being left out — atheism is not everything, and one needs to both be balanced and to present oneself in a balanced way. But then, I could easily be criticised for wearing a Leonard Cohen T-shirt so often.

  9. Paul W.

    Like almost all atheists, I’m an agnostic too—I don’t pretend to know that there’s no “god” of any sort.

    Like many atheists, I think it’s unlikely there’s a god in the strong sense that most people who “believe in god” assume there is. (E.g., something that is an intelligence, and especially one that knows and cares about human interests, and is peculiarly worth worshipping.)

    Unfortunately, the large majority of people don’t know what an atheist actually is, and atheists are very “other” to them, so I think it’s important to be an “out” atheist—in much the same sense that out homosexuals have gradually made homosexuals better understood and de-othered themselves.

    I think we need atheist pride in much the same sense that we need gay pride. Neither group should accept the stereotypes that nonmembers of the group promulgate, or tacitly reinforce them by refusing to be public and explicit about who and what they really are.

    You don’t get understanding or acceptance by hiding who and what you are. If you hide, others get to define you. If you act as though you’re ashamed of what you are, people will unthinkingly assume that you really do have something to be ashamed of.

  10. Yes granfalloon, but as the texas comment illustrates, not happening to believe in gods can be very isolating, and asserting that one doesn’t buy the dominant culture’s mandate can be in a way empowering.

  11. Dave

    He doesn’t wear it “religiously”; he wears it “routinely.” Using religious language is an easy way to equate non-belief with belief, and it often isn’t fair.

    I wear a Yankees hat because I support the Yankees. Not because I think they’re the one “true” team.

    So he wears the A. He supports rationality and science and finds that the overall RDF message is on point with his own. He’s not a blind follower, only a supporter, one could say.

    There are no dogmas to follow, other than the dogma not to keep any dogmas.

    So the A can be a pushback against the inundation of religious symbols, one person at a time.

    It’s not so much being a part of a group, to place it in evolutionary terms. Only that he supports the message.

  12. Dave

    @#4:

    Also, those who claim that there isn’t a God must supply evidence in the same way a believer portends (pretends) that there is one. I do agree.

    But this raises a larger point: Atheism is *not* a positive belief in no God. Atheism (at least as a whole) is a lack of belief.

    So when certain Agnostics (#4) cry about Atheism and take the spineless position of abstaining, it’s not really a fair picture. Only a distorted meme.

    I highly doubt there is a God, just as I highly doubt there is an invisible violin swinging around my head. However, show me some real evidence (dreams and visions and feelings don’t count, sorry), and I’ll believe it. But until then, one should suspend belief: not reinforce it.

  13. You might even say he wears it religiously.

    Bingo. Atheism is a religious belief, just like any other. People who take it to the extreme start to speak and act in the same way that other religious fundamentalists do.

    That’s why we see heated arguments on this site about you can believe in God and still be a scientist, whether atheists are the only people who can really know “the truth”, whether Chris is a sellout for speaking with the other side, and especially the fact that there are self-described “New Atheists” who are apparently distinct from other people who simply don’t believe in God.

  14. @4 – see Russel’s tea-pot, the invisible pink unicorn etc etc. It’s a tired trope to equate lack of belief in something for which there is no evidence to people who have blind faith in something because of a book written 2000 years ago. No, atheism is not a religion, any more than a-fairy-ism or a-leprechaun-ism is a religion.

    Full disclosure – I’m an atheist (and afairyist… though I think I saw a leprechaun in my garden the other day). I went a little farther than Phil though: http://www.invisiblepinkunicorn.com/ipu/tattoospotting/Pages/IPU_Tattoos_2.html#24

  15. It’s a tired trope to equate lack of belief in something for which there is no evidence to people who have blind faith in something because of a book written 2000 years ago.

    There’s a distinction between the phrase:

    “I don’t believe in God”

    and

    “I believe there is no God”

    The second is a religious viewpoint.

  16. @11 – Again, no. Tell me, if you lived in a country where everyone believed in Thor, and were making policies based on that belief (you’re not allowed to use electronics – harnessing Thor’s lightning for personal gains offends him), and forced you pay for and sacrifice a goat on his behalf so that the rains came, don’t you think you would want to speak out.

    And do you think it would make sense if people started calling your athorism a religion?

    That’s why I speak out about my atheism, and the reason I tattooed myself to identify as one: I want to start the conversation, and show people that it’s not necessary to believe in things for which there is no evidence, even if everyone else does.

  17. Paul W.

    Jinchi is mistaken.

    Depending on what is meant by “God,” it likely isn’t a religious belief to disbelieve in such a thing.

    For example, I disbelieve in the God of the Bible for pretty much the same reasons I disbelieve in Thor. I don’t have a religious faith that there’s no Thor, or no Jahweh; I simply think that there are better explanations of such beliefs—why people would believe them despite their being untrue—than that they are true. And in the case of the God of the Bible, I think that it’s pretty clear that the story is largely untrue, if only because it’s internally contradictory. There’s excellent reason to think it’s yet another collection of myths, of the sort that humans are prone to making, and that there’s no particular divine inspiration for it.

    I could be wrong. There might be a God of some sort. There might even be one that people actually encountered and recognized true aspects of. Some of those encounters might be recorded in the Bible, embroidered and mixed with run-of-the-mill misu derstanding and myth. I can’t know for sure that hasn’t happened.

    But I don’t need to know that, or assume it, or make a leap of faith about it, or be the slightest bit religous, in order to be an atheist.

  18. Jon

    Yes granfalloon, but as the texas comment illustrates, not happening to believe in gods can be very isolating, and asserting that one doesn’t buy the dominant culture’s mandate can be in a way empowering.

    Interesting quote from the original Scarlett Letter (pasted in here without comment):

    Hester Prynne, with a mind of native courage and activity, and for so long a period not merely estranged, but outlawed from society, had habituated herself to such latitude of speculation as was altogether foreign to the clergyman. She had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness, as vast, as intricate, and shadowy as the untamed forest, amid the gloom of which they were now holding a colloquy that was to decide their fate. Her intellect and heart had their home, as it were, in desert places, where she roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woods. For years past she had looked from this estranged point of view at human institutions, and whatever priests or legislators had established; criticising all with hardly more reverence than the Indian would feel for the clerical band, the judicial robe, the pillory, the gallows, the fireside, or the church. The tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to set her free. The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers—stern and wild ones—and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.

  19. GM

    For some reason I have never seen you protest against people wearing crosses on their necks, or women in burkas. Why is that?

  20. Jinchi – There may be a distinction, but it’s a pedantic one. I doubt there are many people that would see the difference. I believe there is no teapot orbiting the sun. Is that a religious viewpoint? Agnosticism is all well and good – I’m a scientist, and you always have to be prepared to admit [i]based on new evidence[/i] that your strongly held viewpoint is wrong. But to question [i]every[/i] position, always, without any evidence to support the opposing view makes no sense.

    Are you unsure every morning that the sun will rise? Or that when you throw a ball it will fall to the ground? It’s possible those things won’t happen, but to live a life thinking and equivocating on those points would be tiresome and pointless.

  21. Jinchi – There may be a distinction, but it’s a pedantic one.

    No it isn’t. Sheril isn’t talking about someone who “lacks a belief in God”. She’s talking about someone who makes not believing in God a central part of his daily life. That’s a religious belief system.

    I’ll try not to make any assumptions about Phil, but the discussions on this site are typically between those who are mild atheists like Chris (in the sense that he doesn’t believe in God but doesn’t particularly care if you do) and hard-core atheists (who think that anyone who believes in God is incapable of critical thought).

  22. MT-LA

    @ Dave (#13)
    Spineless? Nice…
    As a religious agnostic, I am positively asserting that man CANNOT know if there is a God, one way or the other; it is an impossible knowledge. Is it spineless to positively assert something? Or is it spineless to simply say “I believe”. Atheism is not a lack of belief. Atheism is a belief in the lack. Agnosticism is a lack of belief.

    Yes, Kevin, I suppose it is a pedantic distinction. The difference between a house cat and a tiger is a pedantic distinction if you ignore the meaningful differences between the two words.

    And to the next point, you don’t have to be a complete agnostic…I am a religious agnostic.

  23. Albert Bakker

    Has nothing to do with religion in the way meant here, has to do with the way the human brain is wired up to deal with symbols (and rituals.) You don’t (usually) believe in them or what they stand for in a well-defined, reasoned, explicit manner. That might play a part in a reconstruction to legitimize or rationalize behavior. Instead, like normal learning processes, the symbol is associated with abstract concepts, or eventually perhaps even value judgments/ emotions in the brain that is not directly accessible to conscious evaluation.
    Maybe after unguarded accumulation of different associations the whole thing becomes diffuse and subject to alternating dominances of different concepts or groups/ coalitions of concepts.

  24. Guy

    A person’s identity isn’t so much about what they don’t believe, but what they do believe in.

    I think there are evolutionary and cultural benefits to shared beliefs─including irrational beliefs, but there are also some negative aspects. How you deal with opposing views is what people are going to remember you for. The more assertive and confrontational you are about your beliefs, the more likely there will be conflict. Conflict almost always leads to suffering and often times change, sometimes positive, but often negative. In history, popular belief has always won when push came to shove, even when there was no rational basis for it.

  25. Feynmaniac

    A commenter has admitted to sock puppeting here at The Intersection while agreeing with the authors of this blog:

    I was Milton C., as well as “seminatrix” and “bilbo.” …. I believe I also posted under the YNH name Patricia there, and Polly-O appeared once I think, too.

    I’m curious as to why this was never noticed, especially since this blog is heavily moderated.

  26. @Jinchi – Making something a central part of your daily life doesn’t make it a religion. Some people are advocates for certain political, environmental or social causes, and make it a central part of their lives, but these are not religions. I think that my atheism is far closer to a political and social cause, it just happens to deal with a struggle against religious viewpoints.

    @MT-LA – The difference between a house-cat and a tiger is important when you’re wondering about what to have in your house, but an almost pointless distinction when talking about differences between canines and felines. Context matters. My larger point when talking about agnosticism, and whether or not to use the term with respect to belief in god, fairies, leprechauns, the sun rising etc, is to point out that while there may be a technical difference between “I believe the sun will rise tomorrow” and “I don’t believe the sun will not rise,” the difference is pretty meaningless when trying to convey what I actually think.

    Technically, I have to be agnostic about fairies, ghosts, and the rising sun. Seriously – there’s always the chance that some new evidence will come along that changes my mind. But if someone asks me if the sun will rise tomorrow, I don’t say, “I don’t know, when weighing the evidence, I think there’s a good chance it will, but it might not,” even though that’s technically the truth. I would just say, “Yes.”

    Similarly, “Do you believe there are leprechauns in your garden?” – “No.”
    “Do you believe in god?” – “No.”

  27. I’m curious as to why this was never noticed, especially since this blog is heavily moderated.

    Interesting and good to know. It’s actually quite difficult to figure out when someone is sock puppeting. Multiple users can share the same IP, depending on where they are posting from.

  28. Unbeliever

    “Well-meaning Christians” have been happy to push their beliefs in our faces, discriminating against women, blacks, gays, and atheists.

    Women stood up, demanded recognition, and forced change.

    Blacks stood up, demanded recognition, and forced change.

    Gays are standing up RIGHT NOW, demanding recognition, and forcing change.

    You don’t have to be obnoxious, you don’t have to be violent, but you *DO* need to be seen, and heard, if you want to change the status quo.

    You cannot so much as spend a dollar in this country anymore, without making an implicit claim about the existence of God. You cannot recite the Pledge anymore, without EXPLICITLY acknowledging God.

    CHRISTIANS are the ones on the offensive, trying to get religion into the courts, and into the public schools.

    Wearing a shirt with an “A” on it is literally the least you can do, to get the opposing message out there.

    We exist! And we’re sick of this shit…

  29. I don’t think atheist is really a label by default it has just become one. Rather it is actually just a description for someone who does not beleice in god. This is why I like to say I’m atheist and not I’m an atheist. Leaving out the “an” seems to take away the belonging. My question for Kirsh (I use that pretending we are friends :P ) would be “so you believe in god?” if no then you are atheist. It’s just a description.

  30. No, atheism is not a religion (and saying atheists do things “religiously” is lame). If atheism is a religion, then not playing football is a sport and not collecting stamps is a hobby. Would you say I “athletically” refrain from jogging?

    h/t
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bSLkQnCurgs

  31. MT-LA

    @Kevin (#27):
    “…even though that’s technically the truth.”
    I accept your apology.

  32. Jon

    Atheism and religion are both metaphysical stances. “All there is is the physical, empirical world,” is a metaphysical statement, because it denies the existence of anything else, without observational knowledge. “There is the empirical world, and there is something else beyond it as well” is also a metaphysical statement. And, there are evangelists with both kinds of beliefs, and both, apparently, can be quite millenarian ; )

  33. @MT-LA (#32) – I see. I thought we were trying to have an honest discussion. My mistake.

  34. MT-LA

    @Kevin:
    Sorry, you’re right, I couldn’t resist. But admit it: you’re saying that technically you’re a religious agnostic, but you just choose to call yourself an atheist because its simpler.

  35. Jon

    The trouble is, atheists become not good citizens trying to promote rationalism and sound knowledge in the public sphere, but just another group practicing identity politics–bringing police whistles to public lectures and disrupting them just like feminists did in the early 90′s. It was silly and didn’t help they’re cause. It’s not promoting anyone’s understanding of each other. It degenerates into a shouting contest… Plus, atheists aren’t oppressed like blacks, women, or homosexuals have been. They’re usually highly educated with every advantage…

  36. Jon

    Sorry, *their* cause

  37. @MT-LA: it’s not about simplicity, it’s about clarity. While technically being agnostic about everything, from gravity to the moon landing to god, if I told you “I don’t know if I believe in gravity,” or “I don’t know if I believe that humans landed on the moon,” I’m guessing you’d think I was an idiot.

  38. Jon

    Yeesh. Let’s rephrase: The trouble is, we could have atheists trying to promote rationalism and sound knowledge in the public sphere, something all of us can agree on, but instead they become just another group practicing identity politics

  39. Sheril, you quoted part of Paul W.’s comment but left his question unanswered. Would you please answer his question? http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2010/03/01/the-value-of-science-blogs/#comment-62901

  40. Jon

    I mean, if there’s a better example of identity politics that’s divisive in practice, and prone to drown out other important public business when it’s discussed in the public square, what would do that more than proselytizing atheism?

  41. @ Jon (#41) – Maybe proselytizing religion? I bet that if all the religious fundies left their religion out of the public sphere, the proselytizing atheists would clap their hands and walk off the stage.

  42. @Jinchi – Making something a central part of your daily life doesn’t make it a religion.

    He makes his belief about God a daily ritual. Phil spends more time thinking about God than the average man on the street who might answer “Sure” to the question “Do you believe in God?”, but hasn’t been to church, said his prayers, or thought about it one way or another in years.

    Any belief in God is a religious belief, even if the thing you believe is “there is no God”.

  43. TB

    @12 Dave

    “I wear a Yankees hat because I support the Yankees. Not because I think they’re the one “true” team.”

    I know Yankees fans who would say you’re not a true Yankee fan. ;)

  44. TB

    People don’t self-identify according to the dictionary – at least not on the internet. And that’s fine, except if they’re using a simple word that doesn’t necessarily describe their own complex idea of themselves, then they’re not adding to clarity.

  45. MT-LA

    @Kevin: Thank you for forgiving my poor humor with the “apology” comment.
    Anyway, I think this comes down to a dispute over meaning; the meaning of atheist, the meaning of belief (as opposed to knowledge). There’s a problem with your analogies: Belief in gravity and belief in man-landing-on-moon is not the same as belief in God (or belief in not-God).

    There is plenty of evidence for gravity (even though it is a theory).
    There is plenty of evidence for man-landing-on-moon. PERIOD!
    There is no evidence for God, and there is no evidence for not-God.

    If you think or believe that God exists, you are religious (or, you are a theist). If you think or believe that God doesn’t exist, then you are atheist (or, you are an atheist). But either way you believe, you DO believe. The problem is a true atheist is a believer, they just have a hard time admitting it. You can play all the verbal games you want, trying to equate atheism with skepticism, science, and rational thought. But in the end you have nothing to base your argument on, only the preference that science has a better answer than religion.

    If you don’t believe God exists, then you’re probably an agnostic, but evidently saying “atheist” is more clear than using the right word.

    Like I said before, agnosticism isn’t a state of mind…I’m not ALWAYS doubting everything. I am agnostic about God. If you ask me “Do I believe in God” I say “I don’t know, but it shouldn’t matter.”

  46. bad Jim

    Different dictionaries have different definitions. A 1970 American Heritage Dictionary defines atheist as one who believes there is no god; a later edition adds those who don’t believe in a god. Words change their meaning over time. “Terrible” used to mean exciting terror, as in “Ivan the Terrible”, but now means really bad. “Gay” didn’t use to mean homosexual.

    Strictly speaking, an agnostic is free to believe to believe in a god or not. Agnosticism describes a state of knowledge rather than belief.

  47. gillt

    Sheril: “Interesting and good to know. It’s actually quite difficult to figure out when someone is sock puppeting. Multiple users can share the same IP, depending on where they are posting from.”

    It seems odd though that Mooney accepted apologies from two commenters on the same thread sharing the same IP address (who since admitted to sockpuppetry) and apologizing for the exact same thing: ganging up on a government employee and threatening to get him fired.

    I ask you what’s more important, moderating for swear words or moderating against unethical behavior?

  48. J. J. Ramsey

    Jinchi: “Any belief in God is a religious belief, even if the thing you believe is ‘there is no God’.”

    If you are talking about paperwork where one has to check off a box or write something in to indicate one’s “religious beliefs,” then yes, atheism can be construed as a religious belief, but then, so can agnosticism.

    There is a heaping world of difference, though, between someone having beliefs about gods and someone believing in them. To the extent that an atheist can be described as “religious,” he or she is probably better described as “tribal,” tending to think in terms of “us” and “them” and to have a caricatured idea of “them,” and in more extreme cases, to contort facts and logic in mocking “them.” That sort of attitude is often seen in religion but is hardly exclusive to it.

  49. gillt

    ML-LA: “but evidently saying “atheist” is more clear than using the right word.

    The right word? You’re abusing your dictionary. It’s a usage guide, not the English language commandments.

  50. Wowbagger

    gillt wrote: ‘I ask you what’s more important, moderating for swear words or moderating against unethical behavior?

    Good question.

  51. MT-LA

    Gillt, what I do with my dictionary is none of your business :) Fine…I’ll retract. If the word “atheist” somehow seems truthier to you, then so be it.

  52. If you are talking about paperwork where one has to check off a box or write something in to indicate one’s “religious beliefs,” then yes, atheism can be construed as a religious belief, but then, so can agnosticism.

    No, I’m not talking about paperwork. I’m talking about the question itself. “Do you believe in God” is a religious question. If you answer yes or no, you are telling us your opinion of a religious question. It is possible to have no opinion on the question at all – those people typically call themselves agnostics (at which point they are accused of being too cowardly to pick a side).

    Now, degree of belief is a separate question. As I said above, Phil appears to be much more devoted to his religious viewpoint than many who would say that they believe in God. And we’ve seen plenty of arguments about the relationship between science and religion at this site, in which the PZ Myers/Jerry Coyne contingent verge on a parody of religious orthodoxy with their arguments that religious scientists are incapable of understanding “the truth”.

  53. Sputnik

    Labels can be problematic, sure, but when people ask me if I believe in a god then I say “no.” I don’t see a need to be wishy washy since I don’t actually believe. It’s just being clear and honest.

    MT-LA: I’m both an atheist and an agnostic. One deals with belief and the other with knowledge. It just depends on what question you ask.

  54. @30 Trevor

    My question for Kirsh (I use that pretending we are friends :P ) would be “so you believe in god?” if no then you are atheist. It’s just a description.

    I “believe in” the laws of physics. That doesn’t require a label.

  55. CW

    I agree with a few of the posts above. Maybe he wears it because he secretly wants to find others with the same worldview? Maybe his openness will give confidence to others who are afraid to accept their atheism?

  56. “Early on, Phil wanted to know whether I was an atheist too since I’m in science. I explained that I don’t like labels because they mainly serve to divide people one way or another.”

    So, he asked you a simple question, and you avoided giving a simple or honest answer. Nice.

    Do you think his respect for you fell a bit that day? Mine would have.

  57. TB

    Nice quote-mining Ray. So you’ve never read Vonnegut.

  58. Paul W.

    Sheril:

    It’s actually quite difficult to figure out when someone is sock puppeting. Multiple users can share the same IP, depending on where they are posting from.

    It’s often very easy, as it would have been in this case. AFAIK, most major bloggers check IP’s as a matter of course when there’s an apparet chorus of agreement in a vituperative thread. (As there very often has been here when “bilbo” and his alter egos posted.)

    IP addresses alone may not tell you with certainty that somebody is sock-puppeting, but they can easily give you some really, really good indicators.

    Sure, several people may post from the same IP, e.g., the same computer network at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and the same poster may post from several IP’s. (E.g., from home, from the library, from MacDonald’s…)

    But still. When you have a character like “bilbo” and a chorus of agreers, you should be a little bit suspicious, and have a look at the first couple of octets of the IP addresses. If several people’s match, you should be very suspicious, especially if they’ve never given any indication that they know each other IRL, work together, belong to the same organization, or whatever.

    At that point, you do a little more digging. If don’t feel like working at it, just ask them if they are the same person.

    That’s how “bilbo” (“William” from Alabama) was caught sock puppeting his own blog and others. People noticed his puppets having similar IP’s when posting on their blogs, then checked for other indicators—oddly similar details of punctuation like triple exclamation points, etc.—and then just confronted him. He fessed up.

    That could have happened here a long, long time ago and saved a lot of people a lot of hassle from a dishonest, vindictive douchebag.

    I, for one, assumed that if those “commenters” were sock puppets—and I certainly did wonder—the sock puppeter was doing something cleverer and harder to detect. (E.g., posting from several remote logins.) Otherwise, I assumed, you would have caught him long ago and made him stop.

    Can we rely on you to check for such things in the future, and stop that sort of very easily-detected sock puppeting?

  59. Yes, I’ve read some Vonnegut. What does that have to do with anything?

    And it’s not a “quote mine”. It’s a quote, with enough there to give the context, the entirely of which is at the top of the page.

    So, TB, if someone asked you “Are you an atheist?”, what’s wrong with actually answering the question? If one believes in a deity, it’s a yes, and if not, it’s a no. If you just accept the concept metaphorically or whatever, a short answer is easy, too.

    Saying that “I don’t like such labels” since they lead to “war, bigotry, genocide, and so on” is not an answer; it’s an evasion. Frankly, I don’t like the labels either (since no one is more hated than atheists in religious countries like the USA), but that wasn’t the question, was it?

  60. ponderingfool

    Myself, I am an out atheist because it counters the expectations many have that atheists are “others” that they don’t belong in American society. Certain religious groups in this country actively campaigned to equate atheism with the Soviets, the enemy. To make us seem unAmerican.

    In “liberal” Marin County, CA during the 1980s I was routinely asked why my family didn’t just move to the Soviet Union because of my parents atheism and left politics. Never mind those with my parents’ politics were hunted down in the USSR as enemies of the state. It was not a pleasant experience to say the least but I did not hide who I was. My parents taught me the best response is to stand tall, be passionate but caring. They taught me to live in this world and not to hide from it. To let my actions and words show that no we are not UnAmerican but we are part of this society.

    My in-laws are protestants. They were scared of me when my wife introduced me to them. Why? I was an atheist who thinks evolution happens, including us humans, who is on the left. They no longer fear us atheists because they know I am one and I am a person who cares about others, who does his best to help when I can, who will stand up on principle even if it means disagreeing with them. Heck a couple of them have even started to change politically – voting for Obama despite being life long Republicans.

  61. Maybe he’s a fan of the California Angels.

  62. TB

    Here’s what you quoted Ray:

    “Early on, Phil wanted to know whether I was an atheist too since I’m in science. I explained that I don’t like labels because they mainly serve to divide people one way or another.”

    But you clipped the paragraph. Why? That makes it sound like she just stopped talking.

    But that’s not what the entire paragraph shows. Here’s the entire paragraph:

    “Early on, Phil wanted to know whether I was an atheist too since I’m in science. I explained that I don’t like labels because they mainly serve to divide people one way or another. And then we get war, bigotry, genocide, and so on. I told him how I like the way Vonnegut described Humanism and try to behave decently and fairly while here on Earth. “Kurt’s up in heaven now,” I added. He got the joke.”

    The entire paragraph shows they had a nice conversation about her views, and have continued conversing. You quote-mined to try and make it seem like she was being evasive. Next time, don’t do it with something so easily found.

  63. TB

    ponderfool: Good for you. I may clash with people here, but I value the diversity of my friends – believers and non-believers. Their different ideas challenge any preconceptions I may have and I’m a better person for it. I hope I do the same for them.

  64. ponderingfool

    ponderfool: Good for you. I may clash with people here, but I value the diversity of my friends – believers and non-believers. Their different ideas challenge any preconceptions I may have and I’m a better person for it. I hope I do the same for them.
    ****************************************
    What is interesting is that they would have called me a militant atheist when first meeting me. Why? Because I did not hide my atheism. They found that upsetting at first. I then pointed out when they would bring their particular religious belief into a conversation. They were not aware of it. To them it was just a natural extension of talking about life. A few now get that being Protestant in the US gives them privilege that other faiths/religions and atheists/agnostics do not have. Working on ideas of class, race, sex/gender, and sexual orientation.

  65. TB, the entirety of the paragraph is at the top of this page. I didn’t make it sound as if she stopped talking. That’s your inference.

    Thanks for the insults, by the way. Perhaps you felt obligated because I called Sheril’s answer “evasive”?

    Back to the subject: I’m sure the conversation was very “nice”, but a simple answer to a simple question probably would have been appreciated. It’s really not that hard.

  66. @MT-LA (#46) – Sorry to come back to this the next day.

    Forget gravity and the moon landing, what if I asked you if you believe in leprechauns? There’s no evidence for them, and none against, would you say, “I don’t know if there are leprechauns, but it shouldn’t matter either way” ?

    What about for Thor and Zeus? Again, being technically agnostic does not mean that I’m practically agnostic. I behave as if there is no god, because I don’t believe there is a god. If someone asks me if there’s a god, I say, “No.”

  67. Sorbet

    -She’s talking about someone who makes not believing in God a central part of his daily life

    No, wearing a shirt does not necessarily imply that. I am a big fan of the Big Bang Theory and wear a BBT shirt whenever I can, but BBT is still not a central part of my daily life.

  68. I am a big fan of the Big Bang Theory and wear a BBT shirt whenever I can, but BBT is still not a central part of my daily life.

    I’m always amazed by these knee jerk reactions when I point out that atheism is a religious point of view.

    All we know about Phil is that he always wears one of those black t-shirts with a large red A across the front to express “where his allegiances lie” and which is an enormous part of his identity, who asked Sheril specifically whether or not she was an atheist and also asked her to put up this post about it. In other words, he’s already told us that it’s a central part of his daily life.

    If I had a neighbor who wore one of several JOHN 3:16 shirts every single day, and talked at length about his belief in God, I don’t think it would be unreasonable to assume that he’s a devout Christian.

  69. Interesting and good to know. It’s actually quite difficult to figure out when someone is sock puppeting. Multiple users can share the same IP, depending on where they are posting from.

    Yes but wouldn’t you as the moderator of your own blog be a bit curious why there are 5 different people from the same IP all acting as if they were in agreement.

    How many different commenters from the same IP address do you get a day? How many being overtly obnoxious in their agreement on one subject?

    People can share the same IP if they are sharing the same internet connection. Outside of a few exceptions to that it would be a good indicator that there may be some sockpuppeting going on.

    Seems pretty fishy to me.

  70. Yes but wouldn’t you as the moderator of your own blog be a bit curious why there are 5 different people from the same IP all acting as if they were in agreement.

    What’s this obsession with sockpuppets today?

    Do you really think Sheril and Chris should spend their free time trying to root out anyone who is hiding behind multiple aliases? Would you like to see the comments section come to a screeching halt as we waited hours until they got around to giving the thumbs up to a comment?

    I know a lot of you hated bilbo et. al, but he’s hardly the only commenter with a strong opinion at this site. Personally, I don’t care what name you use, or if you change it, since most of us are under pseudonyms here. As long as you aren’t pretending to be someone else, by posting under a known moniker, or attacking someone’s character, as happened to ehmoran, then who cares?

  71. Matt

    What’s this obsession with sockpuppets today?

    Do try to keep up.

    In case you were unaware a blog called “You Are Not Helping”, which espoused the accomodationist cause was found to be the work of a single person, and not several authors as claimed. Further many of the comments on the blog were made by this person.

    What is really embarrassing for Mooney and Kirshenbaum is that the same commented here, frequently, under a number of different pseudonyms. One of the ‘nyms was bilbo.

    Even more embarrassing is that the same person posted here using the name “Tom Johnson”. Johnson claimed to have witnessed atheists bullying religious believers at a scientific conference. Mooney made a blog entry highlighting this claim, and saying he had checked out Johnson. The checking consisted of visiting a webpage of a science graduate student called Tom Johnson. No attempt was made to contact Johnson at his university email. Effectively no checking was done.

    So as to what is up ? Dishonesty, that is what is up.

  72. Do you really think Sheril and Chris should spend their free time trying to root out anyone who is hiding behind multiple aliases? Would you like to see the comments section come to a screeching halt as we waited hours until they got around to giving the thumbs up to a comment?

    No but after numerous comments it should raise a flag. I know other much more highly trafficked blogs that do a good job of it.

    know a lot of you hated bilbo et. al, but he’s hardly the only commenter with a strong opinion at this site. Personally, I don’t care what name you use, or if you change it, since most of us are under pseudonyms here. As long as you aren’t pretending to be someone else, by posting under a known moniker, or attacking someone’s character, as happened to ehmoran, then who cares?

    Way to miss the point. Using a nym is one thing. Rapidly using multiple ‘nyms to create some false choir of support of your point, especially how William [ bilbo, petra, phillip Jr, etc..] did it is pure dishonesty. And doing it while criticizing how others act on the internet with full support of the Bloggers exposes a lot about a lot.

    Read this Jinchi

    All of it.

    And then this comment

    And then search Tom Johnson on this very blog.

    Now please complain more about people pointing out blatant dishonesty and the bloggers turning a lazy, ignorant or intentionally blind eye to it.

    Where’s the apology?

  73. Mark

    Technically I’m an agnostic, because I have no evidence to prove that God does not exist. However, I refer to myself as an atheist because I firmly believe that there is no God. I see this as no different than people who refer to themselves as theists because they are firmly convinced that God exists, even though they have no proof. I guess we could all call ourselves agnostics, but that would be rather pointless.

  74. Again, I suppose I am technically agnostic. I have no proof that god doesn’t exist, either. But the chances of god existing aren’t 50/50, they’re more like some insanely large number to one.

    In practical terms, I am an atheist. In scientific parlance, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” (Quoting- someone.) That said, you prove it to me tomorrow and I’m all about changing my mind. Good luck with that.

    But Rush (the Canadian rock band) already won this argument:

    “You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice/ but if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

    So, hey, agnostics who shy away from the atheist label, think about which is your choice. That fence will start to chafe in uncomfortable places eventually.

  75. Also, regarding the sockpuppetry argument, which was what I originally got into this thread to talk about (ADD? me?), I would have thought rooting out blatant lying would have been more important than moderating for swearwords and militancy.

    Silly me.

  76. Rev. BigDumbChimp
  77. Dutch Delight

    What’s up with the ridiculous caricatures of atheists by self identified agnostics here? Most of the agnostics here are probably atheists by their own description, but for some reason they cowardly pretend that they are inhabiting a more reasonable middle ground. I can only assume this effect is a result from the ongoing threats and intimidation tactics from the dominant groups of believers who get their panties in a bunch when atheism is mentioned, but leave agnostics alone for the most part.

    I thought this was a place for rigorous discussions, yet, we’ve got agnostics playing the part of fundamentalists here with their patently silly reasoning, evasions and holier then thou attitude.

    Pay attention agnostics; this is for you.

    There is no middle ground to the binary proposition “do you believe in a god?”.

    The answer is either yes, or no. The former makes you a theist, the latter an atheist. Agnosticism is completely irrelevant to the proposition, nobody is asking what you think you KNOW, the question is whether you BELIEVE in a god or not. This is not hard to grasp.

    Asserting that nobody can have knowledge about gods is a dumb evasion of responsibility and, seems to assume all gods are the same or something. It all depends on the properties of the god that is put forth by theists. If it’s the god of a literalist christian, it’s trivial to KNOW and demonstrate that this god cannot exist as Epicurus did well before their prophet is said to have walked on this planet.

    Oh, agnostic atheist here in case someone thinks that matters, usually shortened to atheist, since the agnostic part is not really surprising nor is it very informative.

  78. I have to imagine this “Phil” is an outlier. I use the A on my website and on gmail chat thing, and while I don’t have the T-shirt, I would certainly like one and would probably wear it on the weekends… but wearing one several times a week? I’ve never heard of anything even remotely like that. The closest is some Unix geeks I know who wear used to wear Unix-related shirts several times a week… before they grew out of it.

    $10 says Phil is in his early 20s and really nerdy (which is fine! I passionately miss being in my early 20s and really nerdy!). I think his excessive A-display has more to do with that than anything remotely related to atheism.

  79. Mike McCants

    “Kurt’s up in heaven now”

    Your bias is showing.

    Dave: He doesn’t wear it “religiously”; he wears it “routinely.”

    What Dave said. Your bias is showing.

    Jinchi said: “Atheism is a religious belief”

    Jinchi is confused. A lack of belief should not be called “religious”.

    Jon says: “it denies the existence of anything else, without observational knowledge.”

    Define “existence”. Define “observational knowledge”. What is the intersection?

  80. Mike, you should read Vonnegut.

  81. joepaleo

    Because evidence of gods is lacking, religious belief requires a leap of faith.
    Atheists are not wiling to make that leap. That does not make them religious.

  82. Jinchi is confused. A lack of belief should not be called “religious”.

    We’re not talking about a lack of belief. We’re talking about a very specific belief about a religious subject.

    And not getting the joke “Kurt’s up in heaven now” reveals your bias, not Sheril’s.

  83. Hitch

    I don’t like labels either, but I’m sympathetic that Dawkins and others work towards an identity formation.

    Why? All it takes is checking out the negative image atheists had even before New Atheism. Being invisible, gentle, soft-spoken Secular Humanists or even label-free has not led to massive secular politicians getting elected, it has not led to atheist’s image improving.

    Almost all stigmatized groups needed to build an identity to improve their situation. Atheism has it worst because we are and really should be unherdable cats.

    But lets think back. Civil rights movement. Feminism. Gay rights movement. Women’s suffrage. All needed identities. I personally consider identities a two-edged construct. It’s been used for destructive moments as well. Christian Coalition, Moral Majority…

    I for one approve of anybody who wears an A every day, because it means but one thing: Atheists exist and we should have a basic right to exist and be tolerated.

    If we cannot have that, we will never have a society that does not massively negatively stereotype atheists.

  84. Cake

    Sheril, that is interesting…

    But not more interesting than why people wear crosses around their neck, lapel pins with country flags, logos of sports teams, logos of boy scout organisations, veteran symbols, the rainbow flag etc.

    What’s so special about someone wishing to show his or her association with a group he or she identifies with? If you are interested in the motivations of why people do that, ask a sample. I’m sure the reasons will, while being varied, overlap hugely.

    Or do you find anything particularly odd about an atheist doing this, as opposed to a Christian or a gay person?

  85. DaveH

    Does Phil actually exist?

    Just thought I’d check…

  86. AUSSIE JOHN

    If you believed the earth was flat. Why on earth would I come up with a belief that is in opposition. The idea is so ludicrous that it is not deserving of the energy required to try to debunk it! I’m afraid that this expresses my feelings about religion. How is it that America has such a high proportion of believers in both sides?

  87. Hitch

    Aussie, if you lived in the US and understood that people who believe those crazy things try hard to shape school curricula you would understand that there is no choice but to form an opposition to it. Else our children will indeed be taught by public school teachers that a creator made it all in 6-7 days (day of rest permitted).

    America has a more outspoken atheist community exactly because the conservative Christian movement is very political. They work to undermine the separation of church and state. They look to mark this as a “Christian Nation” and they work to undermine science and education. And they are very well funded and have proportionally lots of followers, support by elected politicians and so forth.

    If you just want to have them have a go, well yes, it’s ludicrous ideas, but it’s also dangerous if unchallenged, at least in the US.

    In Europe and I hear Australia there are also young earth creationist, but as best I know they don’t have an active political agenda to undermine education. In good parts of Europe a politician who tried the topic would immediately render themselves unelectable, but not so in the US.

  88. AUSSIE JOHN

    Hitch, thank you for the explanation. I suppose that your choices regarding effective action to combat this stupidity is very limited. The real downside is, because you are confronting an opposition who refuses to use reasoned argument, you will drive them into an ever deeper intransigence in order maintain their position. When this happens there is no positive outcome for anyone.
    It makes a lot of sense that your fundamentalists would strive to control education. We have all won the battle to separate church from state. It seems obvious that the next real battle should be to separate church from education.
    Speaking of education, I really feel that the most critically important need we have, is to understand who the hell we are. There is no clear, easily understood framework that can be introduced into an education curriculum. Surely the blame for this must be pinned on ineffective and fragmented social sciences.
    My pet hobbyhorse is in trying to understand how behavior is underpinned by evolutionary pressures. The resistance to this kind of idea tends to be expressed by overwhelming apathy. An example of evolutionary pressure on a behavior, is the observation that evolution has left us bereft of the ability to act effectively in the face of long term threat. We are aware of the threat but it will be put aside because there are more pressing problems to be dealt with. Lets face it, most of our evolutionary history has limited our concern to, “what do I have for breakfast tomorrow?” There is a lot more to be said on this subject and it would be great if anyone is interested in discussing it further.

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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.com For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.

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