The Meming of Life: on secular parenting and other natural wonders

The invisible secular humanists: A response to Joe Klein

The Washington Post “On Faith” blog has published my more formal response to Joe Klein’s suggestion that “you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists” engaged in relief efforts after a disaster. An excerpt:

Screen shot 2013-06-28 at 4.51.45 PMIn the wake of the April 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, Dinesh D’Souza wrote an opinion piece asking why atheists are “nowhere to be found” in the response to a tragedy. “Where is Atheism When Bad Things Happen?” was the usual D’Souza fare.

But something beautiful came out of it. A Virginia Tech professor and atheist writing as “Mapantsula” offered an elegant and moving reply at Daily Kos, describing in detail his own involvement in the collective healing that followed that day. He also noted that there were certainly atheists and secular humanists among the first responders, the counselors, the surgeons, and the generous givers who rose to the challenge of that tragedy, helping to put that violated community back together as best they could.

But these atheists and secular humanists didn’t wear their worldview visibly, so both casual observers and willful opportunists like D’Souza often failed to see them.

It is possible to see how someone, especially a person with D’Souza’s agenda, could take the absence of an atheist flag as the absence of atheists. Though never absent, atheists and secular humanists are often invisible. Their bodies and skills are easy to see, but their convictions—that this is our one and only life, that its loss is something to fight hard against, that we have no one but each other to rely on when bad things happen—often go unnoticed. Prayers and songs and religious group names announce themselves. Quiet conviction often goes unseen—especially to someone who’s not trying very hard to see it.

Fast-forward to 2013 and Joe Klein, writing a TIME magazine cover story titled “Can Service Save Us?” In the course of an otherwise interesting piece, Klein made this claim: “There was an occupying army of relief workers led by local first responders, exhausted but still humping it a week after the storm, church groups from all over the country — funny how you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals…”

I’d say it’s funny how you don’t see what you don’t look for.

Joe Klein is not Dinesh D’Souza. He’s a professional journalist, so it seems reasonable to expect him — or barring that, his editors — to check his facts before he tosses off a claim like this. It’s not that he didn’t specifically name these efforts. It’s worse — he went out of his way to say that our organizations were not there.

Read the full article at the Washington Post “On Faith” blog

Once again, into the mix

blendLast year, while I was writing Atheism For Dummies on an insanely short timeline, I did something counterintuitive — I committed to a daily 5-minute blog entry about the process. As it turned out, that helped me structure my time and mark my progress, and I got to bounce ideas off my readers in a way that improved the book. (In case you haven’t seen it, here’s your shout-out.)

As I transition out of the heavy research phase and into the heavy writing phase for my current book on the religious/nonreligious mixed marriage, I’m going to make the same dumb commitment again. Starting Monday (he said), I’ll write a short, unpolished post at the end of each weekday as I work my way through this incredibly complicated project.

Thanks for coming along for the ride! I appreciate the company.

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Joe Klein apologizes (Genre: Fantasy)

Joe_Klein_2011_ShankboneIn his recent cover story for TIME magazine titled “Can Service Save Us?“, Joe Klein got something wrong.

Hey, it happens.

I happened to be in Oklahoma City when I saw the article. I had the privilege of meeting with some secular humanists there who organized volunteers, resources, and blood drives, teamed with local businesses to feed relief volunteers, and drove bulk donations around the city to distribution centers after the tornadoes. They drove backhoes into neighborhoods to clear rubble and get the rebuilding started, took people into their own homes, fed them and clothed them.

I told them about the efforts of the secular humanist organization I direct, including partnering with the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma to put 100,000 meals in the hands of the survivors of the storms. Foundation Beyond Belief, Atheists Giving Aid, Oklahoma Atheists, the Atheist Community of Tulsa, the Lawton Area Secular Society, the Norman Naturalism Group, FreeOK, the Oklahoma State Secular Organization — the response from the secular humanist and atheist community was overwhelming. Some gave money (nearly a quarter million dollars in ten days), and others gave untold time and energy.

But Joe didn’t describe our efforts in his article.

That’s fine. I mean my goodness, you can’t name every single group that helped out, be reasonable. But unlike other organizations that he didn’t name, Joe went out of his way to specifically say that our organizations were not there:

But there was an occupying army of relief workers, led by local first responders, exhausted but still humping it a week after the storm, church groups from all over the country — funny how you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals

I’d say it’s funny how you don’t see what you don’t look for.

These atheist and humanist contributions to the disaster relief effort were not hard to find. A five-second Google search turns up almost every one of them. But Klein checked only his assumptions and biases, and in so doing reinforced the assumptions and biases of his readers — just about the most shameful thing a journalist can do. Even the time-honored test of substituting another subgroup (“funny how you don’t see any organized groups of Jews/blacks/women handing out meals” etc.) should have been enough to slap the sleeping journalist awake in Klein’s head, pushing his cursor the scant few inches needed to open the browser of his choice and see whether that thing he assumed was true was actually true.

After being flooded with indignant emails for a few days, Joe posted what he must have seen as a clarification under the darkly snarky title “Secular Humanist Watch.” He didn’t say there weren’t any secular humanists in the relief effort, you see. He said there weren’t organized groups of secular humanists. He then tangents into an irrelevant discourse on his own beliefs and mis-defines atheism and secular humanism before restating the whopper:

[I]t is certainly true, as my critics point out, that secular humanists, including atheists, can be incredibly generous. I never meant to imply they weren’t. But they are not organized.

This is the jump from carelessness to the lie. He had just been flooded with proof that there was a large, organized secular humanist and atheist presence in the relief effort. Instead of apologizing for a careless error, he opted for an outrageous doubling down. And now, instead of focusing on the good work we’re trying to do, we have to complain, something that further reinforces stereotypes. I hate that.

Here’s the apology that a person of character and integrity might have made:

Dear Readers:

In my recent TIME cover story on service, I said that you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out meals after a disaster. Apparently this is not at all true. To be honest, it’s something I thought was true. I am accustomed to seeing religious organizations on the scene, as well as non-sectarian NGOs, but I was not aware that secular humanist organizations have also been present — not just as individuals, but as part of the organized, collective effort to diminish suffering and heal a broken community. This was news to me, and good news at that. With a little more care, I could have brought that news to my readers and enhanced the story.

As it turns out, it would have been quite easy to discover this fact. I simply didn’t think this particular claim needed checking. I was wrong about that, and for that I am sorry.

I’m particularly troubled to realize that my claim disregarded the hard work and dedication of real people who opened their hearts to the victims of the tragedy in Oklahoma, just as their religious friends and neighbors had opened their hearts. I erased these folks, and worse still, reinforced the popular mistrust that exists against them. That is simply not okay.

I briefly considered writing a follow-up that defended my statement on technical grounds, noting that I said there were no organized secular humanist groups, or something to that effect. But I quickly realized that this was just as untrue as the original statement, and that it was more important at any rate to reverse the harm done than to defend my own work.

So thanks to those of you who corrected me on this. I’m always glad to learn something new. It keeps me growing as a journalist and as a human being.

Much better.

The religious/nonreligious mixed marriage survey

The main survey for my book on the religious/nonreligious mixed marriage is now open. Many thanks to Mary Ellen Sikes of American Secular Census for her brilliant help in designing the survey and (eventually) crunching the numbers.

This survey is designed to gather information for a book on marriages (and other long-term relationships) between religious and nonreligious partners. For the purpose of the survey, “religious” is defined as any viewpoint that includes belief in a supernatural God or spirit, while “nonreligious” is any viewpoint lacking that belief.

Many questions are phrased in terms of marriage, but all are intended to include other long-term committed relationships.

It’s ideal for both partners to complete the survey, but not required. I will use your email addresses to link your survey to your partner’s. If your partner will not be completing the survey, your solo participation is still entirely welcome.

Most questions are optional. If a question does not make sense for your situation or is confusing, please skip it.

Allow 20-30 minutes to complete the survey, and thanks for your help!

Take the survey

(This is just one of several ways I’m gathering information for this book. Another is the form to submit religious/nonreligious mixed marriage stories. If you’re in this category, don’t forget to submit your stories there as well. Thanks!)