The linguistic war on terror


Okay, that title may be a little grandiose.

But I’ve just read this amazing article about Daesh – a name being used in various places to refer to the organization that would like you to call them the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria”, or “ISIS” for short.

For those who are wondering, the correct Arabic pronunciation of “daesh” is something like [daʕʃ]*. It is difficult for me to be more precise or certain, because (a) I do not know Arabic and (b) Arabic acronyms are exceedingly rare, so there may not be clear conventions on how to pronounce them. Language Log comes through with corpus-based observations of [dæʃ] (“dash”) from Barack Obama, or [dɐ.ɛʃ] (“duh-esh”) or / [dɐ.ɛʃ] (“dush”) from the French press. So it’s not hard to pronounce, though it may be a little while before we settle on a standard English-world pronunciation.

What is wrong with just calling them “ISIS”? Several things.

First up, that’s what they want you to call them. Calling them “ISIS” affirms three lies they would like us all to swallow: that they are legitimately Islamic, that they are a state and deserve to be treated as such, and that they have some claim on Iraq and Syria. (The “ISIL” alternative just uses a different English translation – “Levant” – for the Arabic word otherwise translated as “Syria”).

Now, I am no religious scholar, but when you have legitimate Islamic spokespeople from around the world declaring that you are violating the dictates of Islam, it’s pretty safe to say you don’t represent Islam. [References here, here, here, and all over if you look for them.]

As for being a legitimate “state”, Daesh are really just a bunch of thugs terrorizing people, displacing millions of people from their homes. This is not what a state does.

Anyway, back to the linguistic side of things. This new name for them, Daesh, seems to have been produced by Arabic-speaking opponents to strip them of any dignity that using their self-selected title would give.

Not only does it deny the legitimacy of the several claims embodied in the other name; it also, apparently, carries various pejorative connotations. Daesh is, in fact, just an Arabic acronym for the same words that we translate to “ISIS” or “ISIL”. But it sounds like it comes from the pre-Islamic period of Arabic history – a time that is associated with demons and ignorance in the minds of Arabic speakers. Also, as I said, acronyms are very rare in Arabic, so apparently the use of an acronym itself makes the group seem less legitimate.

Alice Guthrie, author of the article, tells us,

As al-Haj Salih [the Syrian activist who coined the term] very gently and firmly expresses to me by phone when I interview him for this piece, ‘If an organisation wants to call itself ‘the light’, but in fact they are ‘the darkness’, would you comply and call them ‘the light’?’ The second, and equally important, point that al-Haj Salih stresses to me is another take on why a neologism is insulting: it’s an obviously fictitious name, for an obviously fictional concept.

I doubt Guthrie or anyone else believes that calling them something else will solve all the problems with Daesh. They are still killing, still displacing, still terrorizing. But the points made in that passage are important. Let’s use language consciously – not just to label, but to describe and express reality.

It reminds me of how Stetson Kennedy infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan and shared their secret rituals through the Superman radio show during the 1940s – dramatically undercutting their recruitment. [Source here and here.] Some people might want to join an organization people hate and fear. Nobody wants to join an organization that others are busy laughing at.

So let’s keep fighting Daesh. Let’s support the military fight against them; let’s help their victims; and let’s poke fun at them by using a name that undermines their claims to legitimacy. The following graphic, which I reproduce from Guthrie’s article, references a play on words from Daesh – making the terrorists into donkeys:


‘Da’ish’ becomes ‘Ja’hish’ – “The state of donkeys in Iraq and Syria”.

Thanks to a Facebook friend for pointing me to Guthrie’s article.


* I suppose I should apologize to the non-linguists out there for the use of the International Phonetic Alphabet. As a phonetician, it is the obvious place to go for representing unknown pronunciations, especially those that include sounds not found in English. If you need help working out this pronunciation, check out this chart. This is one of the things I teach in my day job.


Where is this blog headed?


Well, I’ve now polished off the latest series of posts. What next?

In posting those reviews from the conference, I discovered that even after long periods of neglect, this blog retains some readers who come back for more as soon as there is more to be had. This is unexpected and tremendously encouraging, and I thank all of you for sticking with me.

Looking back, this blog has tracked through some interesting developments and transformations in my life. I started it in the early blush of learning about Humanism as a philosophical and practical outlook on life, when I was still working out how it fit me as a personal identity.

Since finishing my PhD, I have become more involved in research and teaching, leaving less time for writing.

Although the research and teaching continue today (and, I hope, will do so for many years to come), I find myself entering a new phase, where I write not because life is unsettled and I need to process it, but because life is becoming settled and I need to make the effort to keep my mind active in those areas that are important to me.

And so Deena and I went to the Alberta Secular Conference. We listened, asked questions, talked. I wrote a series of posts on it (indexed here). A couple of other developments came out of the conference that I may share with you before long.

In wider news, this year has seen a left-leaning party (the New Democratic Party, or NDP) given a majority mandate in the Alberta provincial government, and a centrist party (the Liberal Party of Canada) in the Canadian federal government – both replacing conservative governments that had become complacent and abusive in their exercise of power. I grew up in this province, in a rural community with conservative leanings. This May was the first time in my life that the Progressive Conservative Party was not in power. It is an invigorating time, here at Friendly Humanist headquarters.

I still find that I really enjoy writing – to crystallize my thoughts, to trigger discussion, dissent, and possibly even reasons to change my mind.

I am also, for the first time since high school, working on a long work of fiction. I am currently in the middle of my first ever crack at NaNoWriMo.

So, back to the opening question. What next?

Well, I am currently in a glut of creative outpouring – blog ideas, novel writing, the odd poem. So I suspect that you’ll get at least a weekly post for the foreseeable future. (Currently, my foresight has about a 2-week horizon, in case you’re wondering.) I am contemplating some more book reviews, as well as some local activism-related things (growing, at least in part, out of the conversations at the above-mentioned conference).

If any of my other creative bears fruit – published fruit, that is – I promise you’ll hear about it. I’ll be shouting it from the rooftops, including the rooftop of FH HQ here. (Oh dear. I think I’ll need another acronym for my headquarters. I just sounded that out in my head, and it wasn’t what I expected. Not Friendly at all. Oh dear.)

If there is anything that you, my loyal readers (or you others, my random wandering-in-off-the-Internet readers), would like me to tackle here, please let me know. Nothing motivates me like knowing someone is already waiting to read what I’m about to write. (That’s what got me started on NaNoWriMo this year: my wife asked for a novel for Christmas.)

Until next time!

Actually, Innigo, it means *exactly* what he thinks it means


Okay, today I’m going to contradict a foundational cultural meme in order to make a subtle point about the philosophical discussion of religion. I think this is going to go well. :)

Everyone everywhere has seen The Princess Bride, and so everyone everywhere is aware of the “Inconceivable” line. Here it is nicely packaged up on YouTube (one of at least a dozen such montages):

The gist: one character (Vizzini, played by Wallace Shawn) repeatedly describes events that surprise him as “inconceivable”. Eventually, one of his henchmen (Innigo, played by Mandy Patinkin) replies,

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Classic. You can find riffs on the “Inconceivable” line all over the Interwebs (eg, 1, 2, 3). And Innigo’s reply gets at least as much play (eg, 1, 2, 3).

I am here to suggest that, in fact, that word means exactly what Vizzini thinks it means.

You see, Vizzini uses it to respond to things that he had thought were impossible. He was unable to conceive of them. They were inconceivable. His lines were, in fact, a comment on himself, not on the physical possibilities. And (spoiler alert) it is this shortcoming of his own imagination that leads to his demise. He fails to imagine that the Man in Black can be as devious as a Sicilian when death is on the line.

What Innigo seems to think it means is “impossible” – as in, something that cannot happen, independent of what people think.

Innigo’s confusion is comparable to that of certain people when discussing philosophical concepts. Consider this delightful dice example from Tracy Harris:

The difference Tracy addresses in the video between what is actually possible and what seems possible based on our limited knowledge – in other words, what is conceivable.

So, based on what seems to me to be the common-sense meanings of the words “inconceivable” and “impossible”, I think that Vizzini actually uses “inconceivable” in the right way, and it is Innigo who is slightly confused.

For all the Princess Bride fans out there, please don’t mistake me. I am not criticizing Innigo or praising Vizzini. Even as a linguist, I do not see linguistic perspicacity as a crucial virtue for distinguishing protagonists from villains.

What do you think? Does that word mean what I think it means? Do you agree that the distinction between “conceivable” and “possible” is worth attending to in our discussions (for example, over the existence of the supernatural)?

Religion and kids: the latest study


I think I’ve heard variations on this headline from just about every direction in my social media over the last few days:

“Study find non-religious kids more altruistic than religious kids”

It is based on a study published in Current Biology – a study which you can find and read for yourself here.

My reactions to the initial study were mixed. On the one hand, this is not a surprising result. I’ve already heard of research which suggests rule-based moral education interferes with actual moral reasoning in children and adults. (I can’t find a reference to back that up, so I have to hold even that belief tentatively right now. If you can point me to work on this, please let me know and I’ll add it in.) Since a good number of religious traditions focus on rule-based morality (“thou shalt” and “thou shalt not” because of what a book says), it is natural to suspect that people taught in that way will have impaired moral reasoning.

On the other hand, just about every study of social interest which hits the headlines gets distorted according to various agendas and narrative impulses (to support one or the other side, or just to make things sound more interesting). So I was prepared, on eventually reading the paper, to discover that its data supported none of the claims coming to me, primarily via the nonreligious people in my networks.

So much for initial skepticism – I had, I think, neutralized much of the impulse to uncritically accept claims just because they conformed to my preconceptions. But this was an actual study, peer-reviewed and published in a respectable journal. So there is something to learn, and I am fortunate to be trained in interpreting social science research. So I have read through the paper. Here is my attempt to report what I think it really says, and does not say, and what interesting questions we might want to ask next to probe the implications further.

The key number I was looking for was at the end of this sentence:

Results from a linear regression with number of stickers shared as the dependent variable and age (1-year bins), country of origin, socioeconomic status (SES), and religious identification of the household (dummy coded) suggest that age (βstandardized = 0.39, p < 0.001), SES (βstandardized = 0.16, p < 0.001), country (βstandardized = 0.1, p < 0.01), and religious identification (βstandardized = −.132, p < 0.001) are significant predictors of sharing, (model r2adjusted = 0.184).

The beta values indicate the size of each effect – and you see that age is about three times the magnitude of religion. That is, if we are taking these as causes of sharing, a kid’s age has 3 times the effect on sharing that the kid’s family’s religion has. But for me, it’s the last value that I was hunting for. The adjusted r², indicates how much of the variation in sharing is accounted for by the variables observed (age, country, SES, and religious identification). In this case, taking all three of these factors together, we are only able to account for about 18% of the variation in sharing.

What this means is that, even if there are no flaws in the study (and oh boy, there are flaws – see below), and the effect is really real, it doesn’t tell us all that much about any particular kid. The variation between individual kids, or kids within a particular religion, is several times as large as the observed variation between kids from different religious backgrounds. (This was a point that Lynn Honey, in her stats talk at the recent Alberta Secular Conference, made in general. Don’t just ask if there’s a difference between group A and group B. Ask if the difference is large relative to the unexplained variation.)

One thing that was almost completely lacking from the paper was an acknowledgement of mixed-belief marriages. A year ago I read an excellent book about the topic, and it was disappointing to see it left out of this analysis – although that could just be because of the small sample size. In the study, only Christianity, Islam, and nonbelief had large enough samples to be included in the main analysis. I would be curious to see whether diversity (kids with parents or communities with a mix of different religious or other identities) affects kids’ ability to empathize.

I am also struck that we are told only about select tests that the authors made. While I find p-values very useful, one way they become suspect is if people do a lot of tests and only report the ones they find interesting. What were the negative results? How can I know that the few results we are told about are the whole story, or just the bits of the story that make for a tidy conclusion? This is a problem with any study whose analyses are not pre-registered – ie, just about any social science research published these days. But it is a problem.

Last, I want to point you to a couple of other articles people have written criticizing the study and/or the conclusions that laypeople are drawing from it, which I came across after intially drafting this post. They contribute interesting different perspectives that add to the picture above.

According to Matthew: “No, atheist kids are not more altruistic than religious kids”

A secular writer who makes similar points to mine. Curiously, he ends his explanation of why we can’t draw firm conclusions from this study by stating that “this study does at least provide evidence that atheist kids are not less altruistic than religious kids.” As one commenter put it, “you can’t have it both ways”. I would say that “at least this study does not confirm that atheist kids are less altruistic than religious kids.”

George Yancey: “Fatal flaws in that religion and generosity study”

A religious writer. While I agree with him that the study isn’t as conclusive as some of the headlines suggest, his critique itself is unfortunately error-ridden. For example, he says the study should have controlled for parental education. It did (at least for maternal education). He also complains that the authors conflated “mercy” with “morality” in their study of punitiveness. I don’t think they did. In fact, throughout the paper they clearly separate their discussion of the altruism test (the dictator game) and the test of punitiveness. It is clear to me that the authors think these two tests measure distinct things.

Both of these articles highlight a crucial problem with the dictator game – the central test of altruism – which I had missed. They claim that, rather than testing altruism, it may simply test obedience. This seems very plausible to me. The test was set up like this:

  • The experimenter gives the child some stickers.
  • The child is then invited to share some stickers with another (unseen) child by putting them in a separate envelope while the experimenter’s back is turned.
  • The number of stickers shared is used as the operational measure of altruism in this study.

Yes, an altruistic child will tend to put more stickers in the envelope. But so will a more obedient child. Without deeper knowledge of the psychological literature, I am forced to take this as a profound flaw. I have my expectations about whether nonreligious kids will, on average, tend to be more obedient than religious kids. But we’re doing science here, and my empirically un-tested expectations carry little weight.

So the conclusion? Well, it may sound dismissive, but I think this study tells us very little. It does fail to confirm the stereotypical religious expectation that religious people are more altruistic than non-religious people. But it also fails to soundly refute it.

With appropriate follow-ups, it may become a useful bit of evidence in the picture of how our beliefs shape our moral behaviours. For now, it is mainly useful as a cautionary tale in interpreting scientific results.

The best thing about this paper? It is freely available for anyone to read and examine. And this, in my mind, puts it a step ahead of many better-designed studies that are locked behind paywalls.

Keynote address: Matt Dillahunty


Matt Dillahunty, our master debater of the night before returned to close out the conference with a keynote address.

Matt Dillahunty

He started by saying it sounds very fancy and formal to call it a keynote, and it would really just be some stuff he thinks, shared in his typical casual style.

Honestly, I think it was both. Matt is one of those people who is capable of communicating important, even profound ideas in an accessible, informal way that feels like (that is) just him shooting the breeze with you.

So here’s the general idea. When you’re in a debate situation – whether it’s a formal debate or a casual conversation between folks who simply disagree over things – try to keep some things in mind.

  • Pick your strengths. Don’t try to go head-to-head over the philosophy of religion if what you know is psychology, or history, or education. Work to your strengths.
  • Find the core of their argument. Not the fluff. Not the Gish gallop of zingers they’ve recited to swamp you. Find the centre of their case – whether it’s personal experience, an appeal to Biblical authority, or whatever – and deal with that. Don’t get distracted or side-tracked.
  • Be yourself. Whether you’re speaking in a public debate or one-on-one, do it as you. That’s the best way to come across knowledgeable and genuine. Share what you know. Be honest about what you don’t know. (Remember that “being comfortable with ignorance” thing from Greg Hart’s talk!)
  • They are trying to sell you something. Let them try. You don’t have to sell anything back. You just have to discuss whether their offering is worth buying, and why. Ask questions. Once again, be comfortable not knowing.
  • Review how things went after the debate. What did you do right? What did you do wrong? What did your opponent do right? What did your opponent do wrong? What will you do differently next time?
  • Care about truth, not about winning. If you are trying to win, you will be tempted to take shortcuts. To set good reasoning aside in an attempt to score easy points. But if you are trying to get at the truth – if you are willing to revise your own beliefs on learning new things – then you will always win, no matter whose position turns out to be right.

I can’t think of a better way to close out this series on the conference than with the following quote – something I’ve heard Matt say other times in podcasts and videos. It captures not only his own main point, but one of the recurring themes of the conference. It is a principle at or near the core of most secular people’s worldview.

I want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible.

Education panel


(This is part of a series of posts about the 2015 Alberta Secular Conference: None of the Above.)

After lunch on the second day of the conference, we had a panel of three speakers to discuss the issue of religious intrusions into education here in Alberta. This was very interesting – in part because it connected directly to me in two ways: as someone who has been through the public school system, and as someone with kids in it now.

Scott Rowed

First, we heard from Scott Rowed on Creationism in science education. Did you know that we have not one but two creation museums here in Alberta? One down in Big Valley*, and the other in Brooks**. (This latter doesn’t even call itself a museum – it is openly a ministry.)

I know a reader from certain parts of the US, or from many other places in the world, might roll their eyes that I’m complaining about this. But this is Canada. This is 2015. I’m not surprised, but I am disappointed in my fellow Albertans, that they are credulous enough to keep places like this in business. And not only that, but there are teachers in this province (not many, so far as I know) who think it’s okay to treat this dogmatic rubbish as science.

Here are some articles about the intrusion of creationism into Alberta education:

My comfort is that our new government in Alberta seems happy to take things in hand and straighten out wayward educators who think public schooling is their playground for the sectarian interference in giving children a free and safe environment to learn and to thrive in the modern world.

Kathy Dawson

After that, we heard from Kathy Dawson, a tireless campaigner for comprehensive sex education. We learned that various loopholes in the educational system here in Alberta allow school administrators to bring in external groups to teach certain topics. So, without notice to their parents, some students are being subjected to propaganda-laden presentations from anti-choice abstinence-only groups rather than being given science-based, balanced, and complete instruction about crucial topics in sexual health. Kathy’s daughter was one victim of these loopholes, and she’s been working ever since to get this garbage kept out of public schools. Here are CBC and Edmonton Journal reports on their story and its immediate aftermath.

Yes, this has my steam up. Next year my daughter will be in Grade Four, the first year where sex education is part of the curriculum here in Alberta. Deena and I may be able to help counteract any misinformation she is given. (I’m hopeful – our school administrators seem to have their heads screwed on right.) But we can’t reach every kid, and when she becomes sexually active, there is a good chance any partner she has will be playing from a broken rulebook when it comes to safe and enjoyable sexual behaviours.

Kathy pointed us to Alberta AIM – “Accessing Information, not Myths”. According to their website,

Accessing Information Not Myths is a group of community stakeholders and concerned citizens addressing gaps in the Alberta Education curriculum and curriculum revisions.

Our current campaign focuses on the lack of clear parameters for sexual education in the CALM curriculum.  After successfully having groups that teach medically inaccurate, anti-gay, faith-and fear-based sex education banned from presenting in Edmonton public schools, we are now expanding this campaign across the province.

Follow current developments on Twitter: @AlbertaAIM.

Luke Fevin

Third, we heard from Luke Fevin, the main public voice of A PUPIL – “Alberta Parents for Unbiased Public Inclusive Learning”, an organization that works to remove exclusionary and divisive practices from Alberta schools, including school prayer (yes, it still happens in some places!) and the dual school system.

On school prayer, it’s hard to see why it’s even a question. For a school to actively promote prayer for one religious belief over others is blatantly, inescapably divisive, setting up some children as “normal” and others as “different”. Especially in places that are majority Christian, this is an intolerable imposition on the children whose own beliefs or family traditions are not Christian (whether they are atheist or of another religion). Even different Christian sects who pray in a different way are excluded. And of course, despite what the defenders of school prayer like to cry, nobody is trying to prevent kids from praying on their own. We just want schools to stop officially promoting prayer.

We currently have public money going not only to a public, inclusive school system, but also to a parallel Catholic school system. Luke talked about the inefficiency of this redundant setup – to the tune of $200 million in extra costs (ie, money we would save by combining the systems). The recent difficulty establishing a trans-friendly environment in a Catholic school highlights the sort of problem that can arise when one group thinks they are special and don’t need to follow the basic rules of decency that the rest of us take for granted.

Of course, it is part of the Alberta Act (our provincial “constitution”) that we have these two systems, but the privileging of one religion (not a majority, not even when the province was founded in 1905) over all others is a Bad Idea, and that is just the sort of thing that constitutional amendments – in this case, updating the Alberta Act – are really good at fixing.

It’s been done before – Québec (a culturally very Catholic province) abolished their separate system in 2000.

I want to be clear: I have nothing against Catholics. At the risk of sounding trite, my best friend is Catholic, and her kids attend a Catholic school. I just think that, in an age when governments watch budgets, there ought to be a pretty solid case for spending $200 million extra dollars on education, and I haven’t heard that case here. And, in a province that has a great variety of religious, political, and cultural backgrounds among its people, the idea of picking one particular identity and saying, “Those people get their own school system; everyone else goes in the other system” is beyond ludicrous.

You can find A PUPIL on Facebook here. (I actually wrote about them back in June, when I first found them.)


After the speakers had each given their presentation, there was a general discussion around the issues at hand. Many of the attendees are either alumni of Alberta schools (like me) or have kids in Alberta schools (like me). This (along with the Dying with Dignity talk) was perhaps the most close-to-home of all the events at the conference – directly relevant, something we could sink our teeth into, and even start acting on right now.

I have not yet determined how I want to approach these topics at my kids’ school. Like I said, they seem pretty sensible about things. (No school prayer, thank goodness.) I don’t want to start out antagonistic. But I also don’t want these to be invisible issues. If I run into any issues, I’m sure you’ll hear about it here on the blog. If I don’t, it probably means everything is fine.


* No, I’m not linking to them directly. I’m giving the Wikipedia link.

** Yes, this one is not popular enough to have a Wikipedia link (happily), so I’m (reluctantly) linking to them directly. Please don’t feel obliged to follow the link.

Shelley Segal: Atheist music


(This is part of a series of posts about the 2015 Alberta Secular Conference: None of the Above.)

Shelley Segal

After the talk about critical thinking, we had an amazing musical interlude from Shelley Segal, a musician whose music includes a number of explicitly atheist titles.

I could say much about this, but I think her music speaks for itself. (Also, as a non-musical person, I don’t really have the vocabulary. Ask Dale for an intelligent analysis.) Let me just point out that music can provide an expression of ideas and feelings that just text or speech cannot. Shelley puts a beautiful voice to some of the feelings of awe, frustration, and indignation that atheists experience which cannot be captured by religious music or generically “agnostic” or religion-free music.

One more thing. We bought some of her music at the conference, and I’ve been listening especially to “An Atheist Album” in the car. Yesterday, on the way to and from dance class, my eight-year-old daughter and I sang along a bit, and talked a bit about the lyrics. She doesn’t understand all of the words, or all of the concepts, but it seems like having them in music offers a comfortable, casual way to introduce these ideas.

Anyway, here is her song “Saved” (one that Kaia especially likes singing along to):

Seriously, watch/listen to this and the other songs on YouTube. Treat yourself. Then support that beautiful art:

Greg Hart: Critical thinking


(This is one of a series of posts about the talks at the 2015 Alberta Secular Conference: None of the Above.)Greg Hart

The perfect complement to Lynn Honey’s statistics talk from Day 1 was the opening talk of Day 2 in our conference.

In it, Greg Hart wound through several pitfalls people fall into when attempting to think critically.

For example, many of us have a vague idea that critical thinking involves thinking carefully, maybe following particular rules, but we can’t define it. Greg gave a useful general description – a quote he attributed to Richard Paul:

“Critical thinking is the act of analyzing and evaluating thinking with a view to improving it.”

Cool. Other problems he identified include confusing skepticism, critical thinking, and scientific thinking; treating critical thinking as just problem solving; and thinking mechanically.

I’ll expand on that one a bit too. (I’m trying not to give away the whole talk here. If you get a chance to listen to Greg speak, you’ll probably find it worth your time.)

He gave the example of this problem, given to grade 3 students:

There are 75 sheep in a pasture and 5 sheep dogs. How old is the shepherd?

Common answers, accounting for 90% of the responses from the kids, included 75+5=80 years old, and 75-5=70 years old. Why wouldn’t they just say “I don’t know”? Well, first, most numerical problems they see can be solved by some simple operation like this. And second, even as adults, we live in a culture where the answer “I don’t know” is seen as a failure.

This ties in with another of his points: leaping to evaluation before you have thought things through carefully. But more generally, we need to become comfortable with ignorance. Not that we need to give up trying to understand things. Just that we need to value the recognition of where our understanding ends. If I want to learn how economic stimulus works (to pick a random example), then I first have to acknowledge that, however strong my opinions, and however much I may have thought about it, there is a possibility that I don’t have the full picture. That I am, in fact, ignorant of some important fact or principle that is key to understanding or finding the answer.

We mustn’t just apply critical thinking to the easy stuff. We mustn’t just do it when we have a thorny problem to solve. We especially mustn’t just use it on other people’s ideas. We have to use it always and everywhere.

Does that sound like a daunting task?

Yes. But that’s what it takes to be intellectually grown up. To think better.

This wasn’t a talk about how “we” do it so much better than “them” – an attitude that may sometimes surface in the secular community. It was a talk about how all of us need to be careful in all of our reasoning about the world.

Here are a couple of places you can find Greg Hart online:

Dillahunty vs Morrison: Does science lead us toward God?


(This is part of a series of posts about the 2015 Alberta Secular Conference: None of the Above.)

Jon MorrisonMatt Dillahunty

At the end of the first day of our conference we had a debate. In the atheist corner was Matt Dillahunty, an atheist heavy-hitter with dozens of debates behind him. In the Christian corner was Jon Morrison, an assistant pastor from BC with no debates under his belt, brought in by a local church.

I was prepared for scorched earth, for a (metaphorically) bloody rout of the newcomer by the veteran. But, although Matt clearly reasoned circles around Jon in most of the exchanges, both of them managed to keep it civil and lighthearted throughout. The debate turned out much more engaging and worthwhile than I had feared.

And while, at the end of the debate, Jon had uttered no argument that was at all new or persuasive to me, I felt that I had at least managed to map out where he was coming from. Talking with him afterwards, I was even pleased to find that he supports a secular government as much as anyone else there: he agreed that intertwining religious authority with government is bad on all sides.

So, while I won’t be going to him for metaphysical or philosophical insights, I would be happy to work alongside him on any social issue we agree on. If nothing else, by travelling hundreds of kilometers to debate against someone like Matt Dillahunty in front of a room full of atheists, he has proven his bravery.

I could say more, but why don’t you just watch the debate yourself? Here it is, hosted on Matt’s Atheist Debates YouTube channel (just over 2 hours total). Enjoy!

Nathan Phelps: Son of Westboro


(This is the fifth in a series of posts about the talks at the 2015 Alberta Secular Conference: None of the Above.)Nathan Phelps

The life story of Nathan Phelps is hard for me to relate to. I am a lifelong atheist raised in a mostly religion-free household.

I cannot deny that Nate’s childhood and early adulthood was awful, living under the shadow of the infamous Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church. Being beaten by an abusive father. Being taught that just about every natural impulse a human has merits eternal torture after death. Listening to Nate talk makes me, the “friendly” humanist, understand why so many atheists get so vehement and adamant about the dangers of religion. Any institution that can as easily produce Fred Phelps as Martin Luther King Jr. is one that, at most, should be watched carefully for signs of abuse.

Having said that, every first-hand experience I’ve had of religion has been civil – usually downright respectful – on both sides. I’ve known conservative religious people – I am related to some – but neither my social life nor my career have been afflicted in the way many others’ have been by other people’s reactions to their atheism. It is hard, therefore, for me to attribute Nate’s experiences, and the awful experiences of millions of others (atheist and not) around the world every year, to religion as a whole.

It is absolutely crucial that people like Nate continue to speak up against the evils of religious groups – some fringe like Westboro, some mainstream like the Roman Catholic Church. Laws banning blasphemy are bad laws.

And I’m glad that our movement contains people like Nate, whose experience makes it impossible for them to forget the wrongs that are perpetrated when one group is so numerous, or so powerful, that they think it is okay to trample on the rights of others. Because my experience doesn’t contain those lessons. With diligence and hard work on the part of all secularists (atheist or religious), more and more people will lack those experiences.

I wonder if secularism is becoming a victim of its own success, like vaccinations are? The evils of church-state entanglement are far enough in the past, in much of the West, that people can get complacent about the importance of keeping the two separate, both for the sake of belief-based minorities and for the sake of the churches themselves.

Constant vigilance, my friends!


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