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

2015/11/13

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. ūüôā

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 Рin 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

2015/11/12

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 Рa 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 РI 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¬†(ő≤standardized¬†= 0.39, p¬†< 0.001), SES (ő≤standardized¬†= 0.16, p¬†< 0.001), country (ő≤standardized¬†= 0.1, p¬†< 0.01), and religious identification (ő≤standardized¬†= ‚ąí.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 r¬≤, 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 Рie, 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

2015/11/10

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

2015/11/09

(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 Рin 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 – Qu√©bec (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 Рdirectly 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.

Footnotes:

* 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

2015/11/08

(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

2015/11/07

(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:

  • Twitter
  • Mindblender¬†– a company that offers critical thinking education and services

Dillahunty vs Morrison: Does science lead us toward God?

2015/11/02

(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

2015/11/01

(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‚Äôs 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 ‚Äúfriendly‚ÄĚ 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 Рusually downright respectful Рon both sides. I’ve known conservative religious people РI am related to some Рbut 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!

Lynne Honey: Statistics

2015/10/31

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

Lynne Honey

I enjoyed Lynne Honey’s presentation. It could have been a presentation in a university classroom. Perhaps it is Рshe teaches Psychology at a university here in Edmonton. Many of the tricks and ideas she presented Рways that people mislead you by distorting the numbers or presenting them in a skewed way Рwere familiar to me as a trained scientist. Some were not.

I took two things away from this. One is that there is hope, with people like her presenting this stuff, that students (and possibly people more broadly) can get inoculated against the misdirection that so many people think is an inherent part of statistics. (Stats don’t lie. People lie.)

The other is that I want to be able to do for linguistics (my field) what she does for statistics. I want to be able to distill all that I think is awesome about the scientific study of language into a forty-minute talk that can engage, educate, and maybe even inspire a room full of people who haven’t given a thought to linguistics before. I’ll let you know how I get on with that.

(Several people at this conference inspired me not just to think about things, but to do something about it.)

Muslim without Islam

2015/10/30

(This is the third in a series of posts about the talks at the 2015 Alberta Secular Conference: None of the Above.)Ali Rizvi

Ali Rizvi is Muslim who no longer believes in Islam. Does that mean he’s no longer a Muslim? In one sense, yes of course it does: a Muslim is someone who adheres to the religion of Islam.

But in another sense, no.

Former evangelical Christians often suffer from nightmares about hell and eternal torture for years after extracting themselves from those beliefs. Ali faces similar issues – one vivid example he shared was his first encounter with someone from Israel after leaving his Muslim family.

And there is the social side of things. Ali is not a Muslim, but people – Muslim and non-Muslim – who see him often assume, by his visible ethnicity, that he shares a raft of ideas, beliefs, and attitudes connected with Muslims and Muslim culture. Imagine if you will what it¬†might have been like after the September 11¬†attacks in 2001, being a Muslim in America. Now imagine you are receiving all that vitriol but don’t actually believe in Islam. You’re just getting it because of assumptions people are making¬†from the way you look.

But it’s not just the beliefs he rejects, or the identity that people falsely impute to him, that he talked about.

He also talked about those things he keeps. My family celebrates Christmas and Easter, as primarily secular festivals that reflect, in part, the religion-steeped heritage of my grandparents and ancestors (and some of my contemporary extended family). Secular Jews often celebrate secularized versions of the traditional Jewish observances. In the same way, Ali enjoys the celebrations he grew up with. While he no longer imbues them with the religious significance his family does, they still have emotional and personal meaning for him.

I would love to see ‚Äúsecular Muslim‚ÄĚ emerge as an accepted identity, alongside secular Jew and secular Christian. It is absolutely not necessary to reinvent our culture entirely in order to live authentic lives as nonbelievers. We are free to do so, but we are not obliged to. That’s the main thing I took away from Ali’s talk.