Your Straw Man’s House Won’t Stand

The Internet may be the most powerful democratic force in the world. Theoretically, every user has an equal voice. There are still a few problems, of course. Every once in a while a user  encounters a seriously problematic idea. Send in the trolls.

A tweet I read by Lauren Dubinsky (wife of Max Andrew Dubinsky, whose hyper-creative multimedia is worth checking out) this morning said:

@laurendubinsky I have yet to meet a homeless person that doesn’t praise God for what little they have.

Two replies followed thus:

@GabrielGadfly @laurendubinsky I wonder if homeless atheists feel uncomfortable receiving aid from faith-based support centers.
@GodlessAtheist @gabrielgadfly Many of the religious groups force their religion on them in return for food. Also much of the support is state funded.

In the first reply, Gabriel Gadfly (surely his birth name) poses what seems like an honest question. Do homeless atheists, in general, feel uncomfortable receiving aid from faith-based support centers? We will get to his question in a moment.

Meanwhile, both Lauren and Godless Atheist have made claims.

Lauren’s claim is based on her personal experience on the ground. Personal experience is good, but can be misleading. It’s easy for me to have an experience that is counter to the norm. But if Lauren’s sample group was large enough, we’d say her claim is statistically safe. So, Lauren, you’re off the hook for now.

Godless Atheist’s claims are:

1) many religious groups force their religion on them in return for food

2) much of the support is state funded

You, the reader, have a choice. You can believe these at face value, or you can question them.

If these claims were made in an academic setting, these arguments wouldn’t fly because they completely lack evidence, are unspecific, and are logical fallacies. They aim to persuade through rhetoric rather than evidence.

We are not in an academic setting here, but that doesn’t mean we throw out our brains. It’s simple to see when someone is making a broad claim to change someone’s mind, but doesn’t have a sufficient basis to do so.

At best, Godless Atheist’s claims contain several logical fallacies found on this beautiful illustrated chart: 1) Appeal to Ignorance, 2) Appeal to Popular Belief, 3) Division (or Spotlight), and 4) Sweeping Generalization.

At worst, Godless Atheist saw an opportunity to stir up angry debate. For now, we will give him or her the benefit of the doubt, and deal with why this claim they’ve made is such a problem.

1) Appeal to Ignorance: In both claim 1 and claim 2, Godless Atheist has not given any evidence for, but has not received any evidence that points the other way. Their own ignorance plies our own ignorance until one of us becomes better informed.

2) Begging The Question/Red Herring: Because it’s a common thing for states to fund humanitarian work, it’s not a stretch to make, or believe, claim 2. But what is the author’s intent with this comment? Are they trying to undermine the work that religious groups do because funding comes from the government? This would be like saying the work of teachers doesn’t matter because the government funds schools.

3) Sweeping Generalization/Composition: Claim 1 applies the characteristics of one or a few of these “religious groups” on all of the religious groups. This is unfair. It’s equivalent to calling all American citizens pro-war, because of their government’s position and their military prowess. (This links with guilt by association)

4) Generalization: Use of the word “many” and “most”: these are vague and generalizing, and can steer evidence very poorly, in the same was as using superlatives like never or always.

5) Appeal to Emotion (Fear): Use of the term “force their religion”. A vague term to begin with, no definition, examples, or evidence has been given. Has Godless Atheist observed an instance of this which they can cite? Forcing religion, in this situation, seems to me to be a general statement expressing potential discomfort from encountered ideas that are foreign to a person. And this happens every single day.

6) Division/Generalization: If a religious group exists that does proselytize to needy people before they give them anything, that group would not be representative of the majority. It is completely unfair and untrue for Godless Atheist to use words like “most” in their claim.


So, let’s get back to Gabriel, who has been waiting patiently to have his question answered. If Gabriel is in earnest, can we find the answer to his question? Yes, we can!  We will need to ask the only people qualified to answer: homeless atheists themselves.

But I’m pretty sure that if we do ask them (and there may be none, or very few, or very many), that they’re likely not going to all give us the same answer. I’d say it’s safe to assume that some will say yes, some will say no, and some will give a conditional answer.

But to further the discussion, why don’t pose a corollary? Do religious people feel uncomfortable receiving aid from non-religious organizations? Do religious people feel uncomfortable buying groceries from an atheist supermarket cashier or receiving tax breaks from secular governments? Sometimes it helps frame the nature of a question to think about its reverse.

If Gabriel’s question is not in earnest, it might instead be an incendiary comment meant to stir up debate on a completely unrelated topic, for example, whether religious groups oppress others.I chose to take some time out of my morning to respond to this discussion at the risk of feeding a troll, because I believe we can all do our part to make the Internet a place where good ideas are valued and fallacies aren’t simply let off the hook.

We Need More Faith in the “F-word” [Part 2]

Some social conservatives (Christian ones, at that) argue that feminism is to blame for the breakdown of marriage and society. One well-known evangelical sadly suggests that feminism turns women into “lesbians who hate their husbands and kill their children”. But I’m sure he means that with love.

Some Christians, reading into admonitions for women not to teach or speak in church from New Testament epistles, have used scripture to legitimize their culture’s own existing sexism, settling for the status quo instead of envisioning a kingdom of Heaven culture where “there is no male nor female, slave nor freeman, Greek nor Jew” (Galatians 3:28).

These narrow-minded and ill-informed views are simply wrong. Feminism neither destroyed marriage nor created abortion. Feminism is mistakenly blamed for abortions, yet in China, third-trimester abortions and even infanticide take place regardless of the rights of women (or lack thereof). Women’s rights is not a culprit. As if it’s a bad idea to empower half of our society – or that somehow women cannot be trusted to handle power. It reeks of fear and manipulation.

Feminism isn’t responsible for breaking marriage, either. Marriages have been deeply broken for a long, long time, and children die where patriarchy reigns unchecked. In some regions of Somalia, the men take the first portion of food and whatever scraps are left over – if there are any – are given to the women and children. The family friend who witnessed this tragedy said it reminded him of child-sacrifice cultures associated with the god Moloch.

We’ve mentioned Christian faith, so let’s move on to the Bible. One cannot quote the letters to the Corinthians or letters to any other 1st century church with disdain for context. The people of Corinth wrestled with a pagan culture whose association of women’s involvement in religion was as temple prostitutes. Further, women were largely uneducated and untrained in literature, speaking and teaching — things necessary for a woman to teach effectively in church. Paul’s admonitions, offensive when read void of context in modern times, actually safeguarded the reputation of Christian Corinthian women and prevented poor teaching from being spread through the church in its fragile early years. What’s more, Paul celebrates and recognizes several female early church leaders: Julia, Junia, Mary, and Priscilla amongst them.

Nowadays, the story of women’s education is quite different. Recent studies concur that higher education is tipping heavily to the side of women, with females comprising more than 60% of enrolment in higher education. Modern women are articulate, empowered, and educated. St. Paul’s reasons for cautioning the women of ancient Corinth are absent in today’s Western context. Is it possible that God is asking us to think this one over?

Some churches address the issue by allowing women certain positions of authority but not senior teaching positions. It seems that to entrust our children’s education to female teachers at school but not at church is to hold a pretty laughable double standard.

So, what’s Christianity’s problem with feminism? The biggest kickback seems to be the link between feminism and humanism. Fine. Humanism is an ideology underpinned in naturalism, often with a bone to pick with Theology. But for the moment, let’s look at the common ground between Christianity and feminism, since it’s pretty clear that some Christians have found a way to harmonize their beliefs with feminist thinking. After all, Jesus’ followers are called to be peacemakers.

Dr. Allyson Jule at Trinity Western University‘s Gender Studies Institute helps her students and readers of her book Being Feminist, Being Christian to see how both Christianity and feminism desire for fullest human flourishing, freedom from all forms of oppression and compassion for the powerless. Both involve aims of justice and self-reflection. Both involve seeing others as equals. That’s significant common ground. From this, I would gladly argue that Christianity and feminism can inform and empower each other.

Let’s just consider one important distinction. While there are lots of intelligent, well-spoken, wonderful, prayerful Christian feminists, there is a temptation to claim Christ was a feminist. People who do this usually point to the book of Luke, seeing how Luke the physician made careful note of how Jesus interacted with women and with the disempowered. The problem is that we apply a 20th century school of thought to a 1st century man (who happens also to be the omniscient Creator of the Universe whose ways are above our ways). According to Christian belief, God is infinite, eternal, and transcends all of our notions. To apply the label “feminist” to Jesus is actually to limit his scope. It’s a bit like saying “God is a builder”, “God is an artist” or “God is a parent”. While these things are true about God, he is not limited to any one of them. There is a great children’s book about this called Old Turtle, which I recommend highly. He is, in the words of Pura, “all balances struck”. While Feminism has been helpful in critiquing injustice, promoting women’s rights, and pursuing equality, Jesus is God, and his plan to restore humanity is larger than that of Feminism. Instead of forcing Jesus into boxes, no matter how nice they look in the catalogue, let’s allow Him to deconstruct ours. He promises “behold, I make all things new”.

We Need More Faith in the “F-word” [Part 1]

As I write this, Malala Yousafzai lies in hospital the victim of Taliban gunshot wounds, and she inspires me to reiterate some thoughts from last year on the state of equal rights for women:

Women now make up more than 50 per cent of those attending post secondary institutions, but very few are making it to the top. As The New Yorker pointed out last year in ‘A Woman’s Place’, “Among the hottest new companies— Facebook, Twitter, Zynga, Groupon, Foursquare — none . . . has a female director on its board.” This isn’t only true for Silicon Valley. In politics only thirteen per cent of seats are occupied by women while in the corporate world many women are stuck in C-level jobs. The majority of women, it seems, fill what have been named “pink collar professions”, industries like clerical work or childcare that are often low-paying.

At the school where I teach, a female colleague shared with me that she was glad that I was taking a job in the elementary school. Her reason: because males carry a natural authority that women don’t possess. “The boys just don’t respect women teachers as much as male teachers”, she expressed. Regrettably her observation may be true, even if her reasoning isn’t. I am the first male teacher many of my elementary students will have had thus far, and many others have expressed their satisfaction that a man will lead this rambunctious male-heavy class.

Females have fought hard to gain an equal place in society. Now, in the 21st century, women appear to have equal rights (at least on paper). But how much has actually changed?

Conflicts surrounding gender challenge every society. Westerners gasp at the concept of cultures forcing women to cover themselves from head to toe or to undergo circumcision. Yet even in the perceivedly liberal West, our patriarchy is as notorious as any for diminishing women in the worst way possible: by silencing them.

Through history, there have been witch hunts, church splits over appointments of female clergy, and omissions of influential women from history books (see The Book of Women by Lynne Griffin and Kelly McCann). Yet unlike other revolutions, (and we believe women have had their revolution), it hasn’t really been considered cool to be an “f-word” . . . a feminist. Does the word stir up a glamorous image?

Women maintain the same basic rights as men. However, they remain constrained by our ingrained social values. Let’s be candid here: can we celebrate equality when a strong man is seen as “powerful”, but a strong woman is seen as a “bitch”? Or conversely, a passive man is seen as “weak” and a passive woman is the booming pornography industry’s bread-and-butter? If the majority of males view sexual content in which the woman’s role is degrading, it’s no wonder that diminishing attitudes towards females continue to prevail, or even worsen in our society. I was disgusted this week at a youth rally when a young supposed “world-changer” grabbed one of my female high school students… somewhere he shouldn’t be grabbing.

Listening in 2011 to Vancouver station The Peak FM the radio ad for the census form caught my attention. First, a female voice gently reminded citizens that the deadline was drawing near. Then an authoritative male voice came on and said, “by law, all households must complete a census form.” At first I thought nothing of it; coincidence, surely. Yet our common mental associations with females and males respectively are motherly compassion and fatherly authority. The radio ad, knowingly or unknowingly, played to our gender identity associations. Two weeks later, the roles were reversed on the ad. It made me wonder if someone else had picked up on it…

Reflecting back upon my elementary school anecdote, are we still teaching our children to respect dad (the forceful one) but not mum? If so, we are deeply ingraining attitudes that continue causing problems for women in an old boys’ world.

Continue reading “We Need More Faith in the “F-word” [Part 1]”

Kindness-based School

After watching this video, I am inspired and encouraged.

Kicking off the year with my grade 10 Personal Planning class, we’re examining the story of Pay It Forward and thinking of practical projects we can do in our community.

Also related is this fantastic list of kindness ideas, which will ensure no student is without one:

Disenchanted Prophets

Are they even listening?

Can you hear me? All stock 40% off today only.

It’s all a dream. Do you know the Lord Jesus as your personal saviour?

All’s well that ends well. I’m devastated over my loss.

Claim your online prize now! Are you breaking up with me?

Speed limits strictly enforced

Words surround us like thick fog, swirling around every part of our day. What’s important blends with what is trivial, private with public, sacred with profane. Popular artists who have something contemplative to say have a hard time finding true listeners in this cloud of words. Many of the words are after your wallet. It’s difficult knowing what words to trust.

It’s easy to become disenchanted when you find you’re not truly being heard. Artists may turn sardonic as a coping mechanism; hear the sarcasm in Weezer’s “Pork and Beans” (hyperironically one of their biggest hits to date). Others leave the mainstream in search of greater independence. Successful ones like Dave Matthews can start their own labels. But they’ll be lucky if they get played on the radio any more, because the major labels drive radio with advertising money.

The problem is not with the artists, but with the malaise of an industry that conjures up concepts, feelings, and personalities to enchant consumers. It’s an industry that revolves around manipulation; an industry in bed with the media that surrounds us, feeding us day and night. It’s unlikely to challenge us to grow, to develop character, to think, or to use wisdom. It toys with loose definitions of concepts like love and happiness, losing the consumer in a haze of mixed messages. I don’t think it could define sex, and yet it manufactures meaning for masses of people in search of it.

Honor The Treaties [Film]

“We are numb to things because there is so much white noise, but art can remind people they need to care.”

– Shepherd Fairey, artist

This is a moving insider look at the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, with help from photojournalist Aaron Huey, artist Shepherd Fairey, and videographer Eric Becker.

Honor the Treaties | The Film from eric becker on Vimeo.

I failed, for a long time…in not telling the story right. In some ways, poor places are easy to photograph. It’s a sad thing because I think that’s why people don’t go very deep, because you can go into a place that’s in rough shape and make pretty textural photographs. That’s what a lot of the stories about Pine Ridge are: pretty pictures about ugly things like gangs and violence. No one looks into how we got there.

– Aaron Huey, photojournalist