“Atheists, Seculars, and Nones: Oh My!” Non-belief Labeling and Identity

A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting in a small office, tucked away at the far end of a corridor on the campus of the University of Tennessee – Chattanooga. There’s some particularly interesting work being done in that small office; work of relevance to all non-religious Americans.

Sitting in that office, I had a long conversation with two university researchers: my old buddy Tommy Coleman and UTC professor Christopher F. Silver. The two are part of a team working on a study of identity and labeling among non-religious Americans. If you’ve ever participated in an online forum or in-person discussion on atheism / agnosticism; there’s a good chance that you’ve gotten into semantic arguments on what those terms mean. You could ask 15 different people what “atheism” means and get 15 different answers. Even internet demigod Neil Degrasse Tyson found himself under heavy criticism for his views on what “atheism” means.

I think the picture accurately reflects his opinion on the subject

If you follow the frequent Gallup and Pew polls on religiosity in America, you’ll notice that classifying the non-religious can get a bit tricky. The ever-growing “none” category is one that is often used as a catch-all, but if you ask Christopher Silver, that isn’t nearly precise enough.  Even the somewhat more accurate “non-religious” label doesn’t meet the Silver standard for classification:

Researchers assume they are qualified to speak on behalf of a group of people that they are not a part of…too many times social scientists lump atheists and agnostics together — even just lumping atheists together, there are so many different “types” of atheism. There’s a large psychological spectrum in atheism. They lump them all together as ‘those damned heathens over there’. You wouldn’t lump all Christians together, so why lump all atheists together? We need a term (for academia) that is different from just non-religion. They are not all, for lack of a better term, “enlightened” to the complexities of the labels in this population that they are not a part of; we need to be more accurate to the group of people than that. It all goes into the politics of identity.

I was curious as to what the motivation for this study was, and asked Mr. Silver if his background with the Chattanooga Freethought Association provided the spark for the work. I was a little surprised to hear that it was his academic experiences that motivated him more than what he saw in the nonreligious community:

It disturbed me how blatantly perverse the labeling was, being on the other side as an academic (in regards to how seculars are labeled in studies). Human beings want a cookie cutter everything. Why not do what a good social psychology person does: let’s go and own it. Instead of letting them get stigmatized, let’s own the identities and prevent a blanket term that doesn’t represent our diversity of thought. For instance, back in the 40s and 50s, the term “cult” wasn’t stigmatized. It was a sociological term for a new religious movement. Then the media got a hold of it, and new religious movements lost ownership of the term. We don’t want someone who is not authorized to use a term owning it, and using it to stigmatize those labeled people.

Sounds reasonable enough, but what about when we don’t agree on the terms among ourselves? Neil Degrasse Tyson’s Big Think video pointed out some issues with how different people define “atheism” as I mentioned earlier, and you can get 10 different definitions for “agnosticism” from 10 different philosophers. How does Silver plan to deal with these issues in the study?

We are going to look for definitional continuity. How people describe themselves is agreed upon, even if they don’t agree on the terms. People don’t always agree with the labels themselves, but they agree on a definition that defines them. We are going to work with the definitions, and find the label that works best based on our interviews and surveys and how they correlate to the participants’ definitions.

If you are interested in participating in the study, the second phase is going to launch this month. They are looking for as wide a base as possible, so don’t hesitate to volunteer! They want to see full spectrum of non-belief in the US, and want the study to represent the population as accurately as possible.

Unlike the first phase, which consisted of detailed interviews; the second phase is in the form of a survey written up based on the phase 1 interview responses.

It may turn out that the definitions we used based on (the phase 1 interviews) are ultimately wrong, but even then we’ve learned something. Instead of sitting in a room and forming these labels and definitions like typical academics, we’re basing it on the interviews we’re doing with participants. We’re basing the labels and their definitions based on feedback from the actual population we’re working with as best we can.

I rather like that sentiment.

You can find more information on the research and updates at www.atheismresearch.com and Non-Belief Research in America on facebook.

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Scopes-ing in Dayton, TN

As many of you know, I do quite a bit of travelling with my Secular Student Alliance work. Sometimes, I get some down time to check out the finest of local gas stations and scenic Waffle Houses.

The view from 70% of my hotel rooms

However, it just so happens that yesterday’s route from Knoxville to Chattanooga took me right near one of the most famous battlegrounds in the history of the evolution/creation debate: Dayton, TN.


Rhea County Courthouse, Home of the Scopes Trial

Admittedly, there isn’t much more to it than a plaque and a half-hearted museum in the basement, but it was pretty cool to see the famous courtroom from the trial. To my surprise, the building is actually still the county courthouse, and the famous courtroom is still used to this day.


It was certainly a nice stop-off to make, and a cool piece of history to see. However, I was more amused by how the courthouse is involved in the current “War on Christmas”, given it’s history as a battleground on the supposed “War on Christianity”.

Here is a wreath hanging on the main floor of the courthouse.


Here is a message placed at the foot of a fully decorated Christmas/Holiday Tree perhaps three feet away from the above wreath.


I joked on twitter that the Rhea County Courthouse is trying to play Walder Frey in the War on Christmas. (Just wait and see who winds up winning the War on Christmas, and then pledge for their side after the battle is over; for you non-GoT/SoIaF people)

“I’m dreaming of a Red Wedding…”

But really, how do you play both sides in this? Understandably, it seems like the decorations were from different people, but it is a bit of a mixed message. I’m surprised primarily that locals aren’t up in arms about the “Happy Holidays”, although I’d love to see local atheists complain about the wreath. Don’t you bet that would be on FOX news in half a heartbeat?

In any case, it was a nice drive through Tennessee and fascinating to see how little Dayton has changed over the years. In case you haven’t seen it, here is Ed Helms (then with The Daily Show) doing a special report on Dayton a few years ago.

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A Happy Hug and Charity Work

So here’s something awesome:

from St Johns River State College Media Club facebook page

Doesn’t that guy look happy? As you can probably guess, he is particularly excited about that novelty-sized check he’s holding. You’d be happy to hear that the check is the sum result of a collaborative effort of student groups at St Johns River State College to raise money to support his local nonprofit, which notably help students in Haiti get a suitable education. Cool stuff, right? Doing good things for people is pretty cool in my book anyway, and I love when student groups can work together for something positive.

The “hug-ee” in that picture is the leader of the Secular Student Alliance at Saint Johns River State College, a group who had their first ever meeting barely two months ago. They have raised 200 dollars for the charity since the time of their formation through the execution of a “Stone-an-Atheist” event, and from selling apple pies for Sagan Day (awesome). Those efforts ultimately put them in second place of all of the student groups on campus in total funds raised.

There’s a lot of reasons I really like this situation. Not only did a new SSA group at a small college wind up running a successful charity fundraiser campaign within months of their formation, but they proved to be one of the most successful fundraising groups on their whole campus. They’ve contributed to an organization that works towards positive change, exposed their group to the campus in a positive light, and apparently had quite a bit of fun along the way.

The last thing that makes me happy about this scenario is the fact that there was no controversy in accepting funds raised by an atheist organization. Despite the charity being religious, there wasn’t any hesitation to accept a donation of heathenous funds (the charity fits into the category of a”non-proselytizing, progressive religious charity” from what I understand. More focused on school supplies than shipping bibles).

With all of that business with the American Cancer Society / Relay for Life last year, it is nice to see accepting smiles without reservation or hesitation towards atheist charity. The fantastic efforts that SSA groups made in cooperation with Foundation Beyond Belief and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society immediately come to mind as well (specific shout-out to the group at Presbyterian College, who broke $3,200 in donations on their own). The fact that the LLS was so enthusiastic about working with the nonreligious was a good sign, and some great work was done through the cooperation.


In my opinion, this is how the shift happens. If we want to get to a point where atheist/nonreligious money isn’t controversial money, we have to keep chipping at the misconceptions and negative associations by staying active and doing good where we can. The SSA at Saint Johns River College is certainly doing their part.

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Spartanburg Herald Journal on Rise of Secular Students

Check it out! Here’s a pretty decent-sized article about the rise of secular students out of a Spartanburg, SC based newspaper.

Not only am I quoted (always a good move), but the article mentions numerous secular student clubs in the area. Upstate Freethinkers at USC-Upstate, Secular Student Alliance of Clemson, and the Secular Student Alliance at Presbyterian College all get shout-outs in the article, and it looks to me like the exposure is already having some positive influence.

Profile picture

Here’s a few spiffy quotes from the article:

“Most college groups are becoming nationally affiliated with the SSA and even starting because of the SSA,” said Maggie Blair, a Clemson University graduate who now lives in Greenville. “If not for them, I never would have started the Clemson group. They send you supplies and all kinds of other support.”

That’s frankly some crazy good stuff to hear.

When college is in session, Makenzy Sample frequently attends the Upstate Freethinkers Club at USC Upstate.


“I used to be afraid of what people would think of me if I told them I was an atheist,” she said. “It wasn’t until I discovered the Freethinkers Club at USC Upstate that I realized I wasn’t alone and I didn’t have to hide my beliefs.”

More things I love to hear. That’s the sort of quote that keeps people like me going on a Monday morning.

That and coffee, anyway.
Google image result for “Monday morning”

On to some of the religious quotes:

He [local Baptist minister] said one thing the church can do is train teenagers to know and defend the truth.

“It’s time for student ministries to stop playing so many games and getting lost in smoke and mirrors, and to start preparing their students for the minefield that academia has laid for them,” he said.

“The minefield that academia has laid for them”…does he mean education? The only things higher education can inherently mangle and tear limb from limb are ignorance, poor arguments, and the use of cliched metaphors.

“I do not agree that youth are less religious. The forms in which they live out their convictions have changed, that’s all,” he said. “It’s the same way with retail shopping: young people don’t shop at the big downtown department stores that their parents liked. But no serious person would claim that young people don’t engage in retail shopping.”

Unless, of course, the statistics show that youth are across the board shopping less or are generally dissatisfied with their shopping experience. And I don’t think that home growing your food and making your own clothes is quite the same thing as retail shopping, do you? Sure a “personal spirituality” carries its own issues with it, but I’m not sold on it qualifying as a religion per se. Just like making your own clothes isn’t shopping, I see personal spiritualities as pretty solidly in the “none” category in regards to religion.

Many thanks to Dustin Wyatt of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal for the fantastic article.

That’s all I have for today! Keep it real, heathens!

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Here’s a shocker for you: a Pentecostal snake-handler in West Virginia died after being bitten by a poisonous snake.

“He lived 101/2 hours,” Wolford told the Washington Post Magazine. “When he got bit, he said he wanted to die in the church. Three hours after he was bitten, his kidneys shut down. After a while, your heart stops. I hated to see him go, but he died for what he believed in.”

That quote may seem just a tad absurd from a rational point of view. Well, it is likely a bit more insane than you think. That quote isn’t about the man who was bitten: it is from him. The above quote was recorded last year from the late Pastor in regards to his experience watching his own father die from a snakebite.

This man watched his father die of an injury that resulted from recklessly and needlessly handling a dangerous animal. In the name of tradition, this man decided to do the exact same thing himself, following along the same path as his deceased father. Unsurprisingly, he met a nearly identical fate.

There are a few spots along the road where this fellow could have avoided his fate. Maybe after seeing his father slowly die, he could have decided that maybe snake-handling isn’t the best way to go about a Sunday morning. Maybe if he had gone through the proper channels to host his public event (featuring lethal animals), he would have been told by Wildlife officials that his event would absolutely in no way be allowed.

“We did not know that this event was happening, and if we had known about it or if we had been asked for permission, permission would not have been granted,” Hoy Murphy, public information officer for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, told ABC News.

Maybe if he had been brought to a hospital immediately, he would have had a greater chance of survival.

Vanover said Wolford was then transported to a family member’s home in Bluefield about 80 miles away to recover. But as the situation worsened, he was taken to a hospital where he later died.

I am not going to relish in this man’s death, or hail this result of unreasonable thinking as a twisted victory for humanity, or nominate this man for a Darwin Award. This is a fucking tragedy. That anyone dies such an easily preventable death due solely to poor rationale and vapid thinking is a tragedy. I’m not saying he isn’t at fault for his own demise, because he absolutely was. This man was a victim of his own foolishness, his personal delusions, and his family’s needlessly reckless archaic practices. That doesn’t make him less of a human. He still left behind family, just as his father did. He will have mourners. I can only hope that this time the casket serves as a more poignant caveat.

You can read the full story here.

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Red Dead Atheism

The other day, I caught a pretty cool video over on The Friendly Atheist. The topic is one I have discussed before with people, but doesn’t get much press: Religion in Video Games.

The first time I remember specifically running into a religious video game, it was one of those early Jesusploitation unofficial knockoff deals. And man, those games were bad.

More to the point, there is an interesting increase in deep storylines in video games. Sometimes, religious conflict plays a large role in these tales. I’m not going to parrot the video, but I do want to point out a specific game it overlooked: Red Dead Redemption. Here is an excerpt from a review that popped up over at Gamasutra:

“Whenever Marston runs across explicitly religious characters, both the player and Marston judge them immediately. They are foolish, misguided, and pitiable. One poor girl finds herself stranded in the middle of the desert, waiting for God to save her. A group of nuns seems to take an unfeeling, apathetic stance when it comes to saving the life of a reformed prostitute. A tee-totaling pastor turns out to be a compromising coward … Red Dead Redemption tips its hand in its opening cut-scene, demonstrating its disregard for traditional religion. As John Marston is sent to begin his journey, we are treated to two overheard conversations. These conversations exist to serve as a contrast to the more substantial Marston and Bonnie, both of whom listen in with visible disdain. As the two ladies explain away the savage treatment of the natives with a religious justification, a holy man patronizingly explains theology to his daughter, Jenny. How does the priest justify the unjust and unfair treatment of “innocent” victims? “There is a great deal of difference between an innocent and a savage.” Stunningly, the daughter is grateful and replies: “I never thought of it that way.” Yes, Jenny. In fact, there are quite a few religious people who have never thought that way, but they exist in reality, far removed from Rockstar’s world.”

This particular review chastises Rockstar (the publisher) for their portrayal of religion and religious people. Of course, the author is also the editor-in-chief of “Christ and Pop Culture”, so I’ll take my grains of salt in pillar form, please.

A shaker will work in a bind. Not this one though; too creepy.

Regardless, the game does make a point of the protagonist’s apparent agnosticism, as well as it exposes the hypocrisy, cruelty, and foolishness of the many religious characters around him. At one point (as mentioned above), the player comes across a woman stranded in the desert praying for God to save her. You have the choice to either leave her there to her prayers, or return to help her. Predictably, if you choose to let her do it her way, she dies. There are a number of points like this throughout the game. Although the issue of religion / materialistic morality is not explicitly the central point of the game, it is certainly cognizantly wound into the game’s theme of redemption for past deeds.

The game is notably materialistic, and perhaps exceedingly dark: there is no whimsy or poetic ending to be found here. The world is grimy, tough, and ambivalent to your concerns. It seems to be, for many people, too realistic. People often want to see things work out well in fiction, just as doesn’t happen so often in our own real lives. If you are looking for an escape from this world through gaming, (as so many do) this is not the work for you.

As a complete aside, I absolutely hated the marketing for this game. Rockstar has a long history of making outstanding video games, but has equally been rather shitty in its portrayal of women. This is typically exemplified in their choice of marketing tactics:

A glowing history, to be sure. Moreover, the decision made absolutely no sense given the style and tone of Red Dead Redemption. There wasn’t any sex involved in the game, and prostitutes didn’t play any role in the game whatsoever. What few they shoehorned in seemed to even bother the protagonist with their needless inclusion, but they were thankfully never forced into the story-line (maybe they could have created an interesting tangent story with that, but somehow I can’t give them the benefit of the doubt). Anyway, that was by far my biggest gripe with the game’s production. They did seem to change their direction with the advertisements after a while to a more appropriate gritty western-style emphasis, but that still doesn’t excuse the fact that they had that advertisement up at all in the first place.

If you haven’t played the game, I suggest you borrow it from someone and give it a shot. It wound up with its fair share of awards, and is one of the better releases of the past few years. The mateialistic / atheistic overtones are just icing on the cake. Also, the game is absolutely beautiful.

Peace be with ye, heathens.

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Honest Liars and Noble Deceivers

I absolutely adore Orson Welles. I remember coming across the following video many years ago, long before I knew about James Randi and skepticism in general. It was really one of my first exposures to pure skepticism, and I absolutely loved it.

Sure Welles wasn’t perfect, and I certainly wouldn’t see eye to eye with him on religion and belief; but he was quite the film-maker and quite the noble deceiver. His last movie is still one of my favorites from a skeptical point of view: F for Fake. Check it out if you haven’t heard of it, it is quite the interesting quasi-documentary film on con-artists and hoaxers. Here’s the hypnotizing introduction to the film:

Of course, re-finding this video reminded me that James Randi has what looks to be an outstanding documentary in the works about his life and exploits:

I absolutely cannot wait for this film to be completed. James Randi fascinates me, and I just can’t get enough of hearing about his long and storied history.  I had the Amazing opportunity to meet him back in October, and managed to get some video of him at work. Enjoy, and make sure to keep your eyes on the cards…

By the way, that is Bill Nye in there with some commentary. That was a particularly fun night.

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Christian Music Creeps Me Out

I just got back from spending the majority of Easter at a Southern Baptist church, as part of a “Send an Atheist to Church” charity fundraiser. The people were incredibly friendly, and were quite the gracious hosts. As I had expected, this service was a far departure from last Sunday’s more-or-less traditional-style Lutheran service. This particular service was far more…musical. It reminded me of some of the contemporary services that started popping up at my family’s church when I was very young: coffee, singing, a live band, and a sermon tossed somewhere in the middle.

a little like that, yeah

I personally don’t make a habit of listening to Christian music, so I’m typically surprised with the language used when I catch clips of it here and there. So today, I was a bit taken aback to hear what was essentially a full concert. Let’s take a few lines of this one, for example (which was performed at the service):

“He is jealous for me
Love’s like a hurricane, I am a tree
Bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy”

Now, having seen the wake of a number of hurricanes in my life, I do not typically describe them as merciful. Particularly to trees.

trees are looking a bit rough there

Here’s a few more lines from another song that was featured:

“You are our one desire
You alone are holy
Only You are worthy
God, let Your fire fall down

Let our shout be Your anthem
Your renown fill the skies
We are here for You, we are here for You”

To give you an idea of what that song was like live: the background screen on stage featured the lyrics played over a fireball.

(sigh) ...I wish.

A flaming hurricane of love and mercy. Right. Got it.

None of the other songs were nearly as…unsettling…as those two. They mostly just reminded me of a particular episode of South Park. And again, the people in the congregation that we met were all incredibly friendly. It was just the music that I found to be a bit off-putting. Well, that and the sermon; where the preacher-dude tried to cover the debate over the universe’s origins. That was just a little bit painful to watch. Overall though, it was hardly overt science-bashing; just blind faith promotion. It was a sermon, after all. He also went into a long metaphor on puppets and strings that I found to be a bit silly, in particular in how he tried to incorporate free will into the mix.

this exists? I really shouldn't be surprised by now.

We all apparently only get to choose what we tie our metaphorical “strings” to, but beyond that choice we are all just puppets. I suppose you could say we are all slaves to our value systems, but then are we really being controlled? If you can change your mind about, say, the ethicality of eating meat, then isn’t that relocating a “string” at will? Or if you don’t want to go with that interpretation, is it really a good thing to be so rigid in your thoughts that you are completely non-malleable? That seems to promote willful ignorance and cognitive dissonance on a…oh right. Sermon. At least it was thought-provoking, which is more I can say for many that I have heard.

nothing says "free will" like the image of a puppet.

Anyway, the experience overall wasn’t all that bad at all. It was certainly a far cry from some of the mundane services I grew up with. They clearly have a tight-knit church community that contributes and volunteers around the city, which I always see as a good thing. They also have what is essentially a coffee shop outside of their sanctuary, which I thought was a particularly cool layout idea for a church.

We wound up having a pleasant lunch with a few members of the congregation, making all sorts of nice small talk. As of yet, we haven’t run into any people associated with any of the churches that have treated us negatively.  Over the two services we’ve been to so far, we’ve just had a number of kind and civil conversations. I’d like to think that this will hold out throughout the course of this project, but I’m at best cautiously optimistic.

For those spending the long weekend with family, enjoy the time. For all the rest of you heathens, there is a new Game of Thrones episode tonight. I’m pumped.


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Chocolate Jesus

I’m about to head out to an Easter Sunday service as part of AAA’s “Send an Atheist to Church” charity fundraiser. I am unsure of what to expect from this Baptist service, but I foresee a significant departure from last week’s Lutheran service.

I’ll be back sometime soon with my impressions of the sermon and the atmosphere, but I’ll probably stop to stock up on Robin Eggs and Peeps first. If I can find a Chocolate Jesus, I’ll be all over that too.

Be back soon, heathens.

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The Atheist’s Nightmare

In honor of spring recently hitting me like a ton of lead-weighted bricks, I thought I’d write a quick post about a subject that is near and dear to my heart: allergies.

My allergies are for the most part your average run-of-the-mill hay fever deal. I am just particularly sensitive to tree jizz, as many of us are. Nothing fatal; just an annual annoyance.

Speaking of which: fuck you very much, trees.

However, I have one allergy that is just deliciously poetic.

I am allergic to bananas: also known to certain members of our society as “the atheist’s nightmare.”

Interestingly, I only came to the realization of the allergy around the time I was becoming more aware of my identity as an atheist…

Correlation = Causation

Anyway, the story:

Before high school, I loved bananas. They were quite honestly my favorite fruit for a good few years running, an impressive feat for a food that causes a burning sensation in my mouth. What I’m trying to get across is that bananas, to me, were delicious. I would even say that bananas were comforting, to a level that I was willing to consciously overlook the harm that they did to me.

One day in high school, I was sitting around with some of my close friends. I happened to be munching down on one of those delicious yellow phalli of pain, when a thought occurred to me. I blurted out the following question *verbatim*:

“Hey guys, isn’t it weird how when you eat a banana, it feels like a chemical burn in your mouth?”

The looks on their faces were, to say the least, memorable. Each of them had some variation of confusion and alarm expressed as they watched me continue to eat the banana. Finally, one of them spoke up.

“That’s…not how bananas work…”

I thought to myself, “huh, I guess it is just me then” as I finished the banana. I then went on with my life, not giving it much of a second thought. I did not have the counter-banana equivalent of the Damascus road.

Google images, you alarm me sometimes.

It wasn’t for another year or so until I decided to stop eating bananas, because it just wasn’t worth it anymore. As soon as I was made aware that the bananas were harming me, I could no longer overlook it. Every time I ate one I noticed more and more that slight blistering feeling. to the point that I finally just had to stop altogether.

If you squint, you can just see the outlines of a metaphor.

The thing is, the bananas had always hurt, even before I was willing to allow myself to realize it. I remember the bananas causing pain, but I was lulled into overlooking it because bananas are pretty damn tasty. I was deluded; a victim of the force of habit and the willful power of the mind. Also my traitorous taste buds, but that doesn’t fit into the metaphor nearly as well.

Bananas taught me a very important lesson about myself and the world: we are easily fooled creatures, and do not always act in our best interests. Inquiry and questioning are absolutely essential and necessary for us to move forward; lest we continue munching on the metaphorical bananas of those things that ultimately do us harm. It does us all good to take a step back and question our actions, in particular those based solely in habit or tradition.

There are more metaphorical bananas in every society than people are willing to believe.

You could even say that there are a *bunch* of them

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