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Member since: 2001
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Proofs, Disproofs, Labels and Semantics

First a couple disclosures and some shouts-out.

Disclosure: I'm a bit of a crank on the topic of semantics, because it is an article of belief for me that the words we use, and how we use them, both reflect how we think and shape how we think. And since that's a key to motivation and behavior, I look at semantic issues as a place to address cultural change. So if discussions of semantics seem superficial, pointless, or ineffective to you, skip this post and/or trash the thread-- if any thread develops.

Also, I think most regulars in this forum are aware I'm a theist, but that should also be disclosed.


Thanks to Htom Sirveaux for starting the discussion in this thread, which raises a few very important semantic issues.

And thanks to Trotsky for this VERY enlightening contribution in the discussion there:

"Why is there conflict? Because there are centuries of hatred, distrust, and persecution associated with the word "atheist." Some of us want to take the word back. Others want to continue hanging the negative baggage on the word. There's your conflict."

And finally to Brettongarcia for a thoughtful discussion too long to quote here but very worth reading, on the next level of "action choices" inherent in the semantics.

From reading in this forum and elsewhere, I perceive two aspects of focus in connection with the ongoing conflict between a theoarchic culture and an atheist minority, and they both relate in some way to the whole "burden of proof" issue.

The first clear focus is a very defined, very urgent, and very appealing need to end the institutionalized and systematic discrimination against, and oppression of, those who embrace an atheist identity. I really, really hope this is an unarguable slam-dunk on DU, without any ifs, ands, or buts. We should all, theists and atheists alike, be supportive of this, full stop.

Institutionalized discrimination against atheists-- including "dead letter" laws still on the books, hiring discrimination, disgusting cultural stereotypes and assumptions that seep into housing and access to services and acceptance in all aspects of community life-- needs to be gone, period.

The second focus-- which has much fuzzier edges, as far as I can see-- is the issue of identity itself, and the extent to which it requires shared acceptance of labels, terms, etc. When Brettongarcia used this post title: "This has been partially addressed on DU, as 1) a-theists, vs. 2) anti-theists" I at first misunderstood.

Here's why: To me, those terms "a-theist" and "anti-theist" have a meaning also. I have tagged them in my mind thusly: "An a-theist, or atheist, is a person without belief in the existence of deity. An anti-theist is someone who actively opposes belief in a deity, not only for themselves, but for others-- that is, they are invested in preventing others from believing, or promoting the abandonment of belief."

(Please note that I've specified these are MY semantic tags for these terms, and I'm not making any claims of correctness or appropriateness here.)

However, Brettongarcia then went on to state tags for these terms that differ in subtle but important ways from my own: "1) A-theists were defined as those who "just don't know" ... or care. They just never think about this. They feel no burden of proof.
2) Anti-theists were those who stated positively (or negatively?) that there is no god."

To me, the tag Brettongarcia defines for a-theist is similar to the one that I assign to "agnostic"-- someone who doesn't know, and feels no burden of proof. And the tag of someone who states explicitly that there is no god, is similar to my own tag for "atheist."

Now, why does all of this matter to me? And why am I sharing it here?

Well, I'm sharing it here because I'm both egotistical enough to think others who find the topic of this forum engaging might be interested, and because it helps me clarify my own evolving thought on an issue of importance to me.

It matters to me because I want my grandson's children to live in a world without theoarchy, where neither theists nor atheists experience hatred, discrimination, denigration, and/or negative social sanctions for their belief, unbelief, or lack of belief.

(Aside: This is terrifically important to me as a believer because of the critical theological concept of "free will." That is, if one does not feel a perfect freedom to not-believe, or to disbelieve, then the freedom to believe is similarly compromised. This affects my personal belief about the importance of the quality of connection between humanity and divinity. No one needs to share this belief at all, but it matters to me. A lot.)

So how do we achieve freedom from theoarchy?

There is the long, incremental, imperfect and challenging civil rights fight, changing laws, addressing assumptions, institutionalizing equity and negatively sanctioning discrimination. This is an agonizingly slow process and it seems never-ending. The benefits come slowly and incompletely in any given generation and only a future historian can assess success in any meaningful way.

There is also the dramatic, wholesale, and possibly even more challenging fight to annihilate belief itself, or at least to marginalize it and thus eliminate theoarchy via discreditation. I'm not actually opposed to this, because as far as I'm concerned, believers have it coming to some extent, and also if belief CAN be annihilated that way, it will prove me wrong and I'll convert.

But I think that second one is problematic, to say the least.

(Another aside, here: I do NOT, repeat NOT, believe that atheists who want to annihilate belief also want to discriminate against, damage, kill, etc., believers. It happens sometimes, when a sociopathic tyrant uses the cloak of atheism to eliminate potential opposition --see Stalin, Pol Pot, etc.-- but not even as often as when a sociopathic tyrant chooses the cloak of religion to do the same thing. I think most atheists who want to annihilate belief sincerely feel that to do so will increase the well-being, enlightenment, and humane status of our species.)

I can see the appeal in the second approach AND I think that on some level, it's both viable and necessary. Ending theoarchy doesn't require an either/or strategy choice, it will likely be advanced most effectively by a combination of both.

However, both approaches in my opinion, could benefit from some semantic examination and shared vocabulary, that will allow shared assumptions about identity. I'm not demanding that anyone do anything about this. Just tossing it out to discuss, both to help me understand, and in the hope that my observations will be useful.


"Social Engineering": Why and How it CAN Reduce Poverty

It's gotten something of a bad name, thanks to dedicated opposition from Our Beloved Oligarchs and their shills, who've ginned up the "Evil Gubmint" and "Nanny State" memes to prevent any discussion except what happens behind closed doors at Bohemian Grove or wherever.

But social engineering is just a descriptor for conscious effort to effect social change on a large scale, using institutional tools. And it's something humans have been doing since forever. It's part of how we evolve. The change from wandering clan-based bands of hunter-gatherers to sessile agrarian tribes, to cities with central authority, etc.-- all represent social engineering.

A good deal of the animosity to the social engineering concept is based on a lack of understanding of social engineering tools and methods.

Basically, they all devolve to three categories:

1. Make it POSSIBLE for humans to do something
2. Make it EASY for humans to do something
3. Make it DESIRABLE for humans to do something

It's that last category-- making it desirable-- that gets a lot of the fallout, because we're not as good at it as we'd like to be. It's a fine balancing act, for example, between providing incentives for male parents to form tight family bonds and contribute emotional and material support on a daily basis to their children, and reinforcing the most pernicious traits of patriarchy and/or infringing on equitable access to economic and social resources to a destructive extent.

Lately, however, we've been losing sight even of the first two: Making it possible and making it easy. In fact, in the context of addressing poverty in America, we've pretty much lost sight of both of them.

In the "making it possible" for people to escape poverty category, we have few remaining tools operating. So many aspects of our social fabric have become segregated by wealth level that it's far beyond just "challenging" to take the actions required to move out of poverty. It doesn't help that a whole cultural mythos of Horatio Alger bootstrap bullshit still pervades the dialog, without respect to real conditions.

How is it possible for a single parent with one or two children to escape poverty today? Looking at simple logistics?

Well, if you are lucky enough to have a supportive family with resources to help you with child care, occasional financial assistance, etc., AND you are willing to work more than one full-time minimum wage job, lucky enough to live in an area where such jobs are available, and have been both lucky AND motivated enough to avoid disqualifying mistakes to obtain such jobs, and can pursue them WHILE having the energy, health, resources and motivation to seek and obtain additional education, skills, certification, etc. that will qualify you for something beyond minimum wage work, and you can keep all of this up for several years AND be lucky enough to dodge a whole slew of poverty-related bullets like health problems, major transportation problems, problems finding affordable and safe places to live, etc., you MIGHT do it.

You might.

You might "marry up," if you can find a spouse with good financial resources who is willing to make that commitment. If you're lucky enough to live somewhere where it's possible to find and socialize with such folks, and if they're not skeevy assholes just looking to exploit you as a sex/housework laborer, etc.

You might.

You might try military service, if you're young and healthy enough, and willing to take the risk that you won't get your ass shot off, your brain fried, etc., and that you'll get some kind of useful skill training other than "shooting people" in the military and some access to benefits and hiring preferences when you get out. Which is a fast-diminishing chance these days, but still slightly possible.

You might.

None of those, however, are surefire routes out of poverty. And the sad reality is that we have used NEGATIVE social engineering to engineer all such routes out of existence altogether. There used to be a few of them, back in the 1970s, when the minimum wage was barely livable, and an array of social safety net programs helped with housing and other logistics, and there were actual jobs available, and actual education you could access that would both benefit you AND be reasonably affordable.

While I'd like to cover the issues of "making it desirable" for people to make choices that will help them out of poverty, we can't really be effective with that until we have a foundation of "possible" and "easy" to build on.

And while it may be reasonable to debate the extent to which a strategy has the effect of making it "easy" rather than making it "possible" (the ghost of the never-existed Horatio Alger attends every planning session...) at the level of challenge we're currently facing, it's largely a matter of degree, and we're so far from success that such discussions are unrealistic and frivolous.

Let's simply focus on "possible." We're not "trying to help people in poverty." We're simply trying to structure a society, an amalgamation of communities into a greater community, that makes it POSSIBLE for people to escape poverty.

What does that look like?

I think it requires a cluster of strategies, and as far as I can tell, we're currently trying to implement many of them, over powerful obstructionism from Our Beloved Oligarchs and their helots.

Those strategies start with avoiding large-scale further disruption of the social and economic fabric. This is a controversial strategy as many of us think that such disruption would have better long-term effects than trying to hold things together while we build and repair and improve. Be that as it may, it's the current choice and I think a sound one-- the track record on such disruption is ambiguous, and that ambiguity tends to reduce the broader level of support that helps institutionalize change over the long haul.

The next level of strategies involves repairing and rebuilding the economic infrastructure: Bringing back jobs from offshore. Restructuring the tax burden. Re-shaping and restoring the infrastructure of resource development, transport, communication, knowledge and skills development, etc. that allows people to create economic sustenance. (This is a multi-benefit group of strategies as the implementation also begins the process of creating access to opportunity through the job creation involved.)

At more or less the same level of urgency with the economic infrastructure are a group of strategies focused on cost control related to the deteriorating well-being of the population. Simply put, the larger the population of distressed/disadvantaged individuals in our society, the more costs we ALL pay through attempts to control crime, remediate infrastructure deterioration and damage, deal with public health threats, etc. Ending the pernicious War on Drugs, implementing access to basic health care, and closing down the various opportunities for Our Beloved Oligarchs to profiteer from the misery of the poor are not easy strategies to implement, but we're making tiny increments of progress in the constant tug-or-war.

Finally, the strategies that begin to directly address the abilities of a member of our community to live well and build modest prosperity for themselves and their family members-- and in some ways, these are the easiest ones: Raising the minimum wage to a livable level. Assuring access to decent housing. Removing financial predators and parasites from the tank and providing access to functional financial, communications, and other resource management tools.

These are not bleeding-heart nanny-state burdens on the middle class. They are not unreasonable mollycoddling of morally degenerate undesirables.

Social engineering, yes, they are. For EVERYONE'S benefit.

Making it possible for people do do what our social species have it hard-wired into us to do: Form family units, build security and prosperity for ourselves, and build the overall well-being of the communities that allow us to prosper.


Supporting Atheists on DU

As a theist, I enjoy the privilege that comes with our culture's assumptions about religious belief. So I feel a bit awkward starting a thread with this title. I deal with the ubiquitous, entrenched, oppressive effects of patriarchy all the time, and while I appreciate allies from the other gender, I do sometimes wish they'd stop assuming that their support is something that it isn't.

(For the record, I'm always grateful when good people do things that promote equity, community, and connection. But it is and should be sort of the default, not a lets-hold-a-metaphorical-ticker-tape-parade accomplishment.)

So, I do feel kind of hypocritical coming up with this. On the other hand, I also know the real value of allies who can speak from within the "cone of privilege" to make others aware of the privilege we share and how it affects those who live outside it. So I'm trying to think from within my experience of being outside the patriarchy cone of privilege, and apply it to being within the theoarchy cone of privilege, if that makes any sense. And this is what I come up with for supporting atheists here:

First, don't knee-jerk, reflexively go to the default "not all believers" defense mode, yes? I think most atheists are well aware of the diversity among theists, but the reality remains that belief itself, in any variety, entitles privilege, and in the struggle to end that privilege, there's really not that much difference between my gentle and (I hope) non-toxic practice of Christianity, and the skeevy would-be theocrats who want to use the overall structure of theoarchy to empower their own particular brand of Christianity. It's all theoarchy, and that's the problem. Not my specific belief, or yours, or even <gag> Pat Robertson or Ayatollah Khomeini's.

Second, check and re-check your asssumptions. About belief, about atheism, about believers, about atheists, and about the theoarchy we live in. Let me examine just a few of the commonest ones I can see from my feminist standpoint:

"All atheists are alike, all atheists believe the same thing, all atheists want the same things." Yeah, right. Just like feminists, huh? There's no spectrum at all among us feminists, we all have perfect unity of belief, purpose, strategy, awareness, etc. Puh-leeze. Any given atheist is speaking for themself, and worth listening to from that standpoint. But don't assume they're speaking "for" or "on behalf of" ALL atheists.

"Poor things, they're so handicapped by not having the experience of faith in their lives." I think if I were an atheist, this is the one that would drive me eye-crossingly, mouth-frothingly insane with annoyance. Here's the analog from my experience: "Poor women, they have that monthly mood swing thing, the bleeding and all-- not their fault but they just don't enjoy the benefits of masculine emotional stability, right?" Stop assuming that a life without faith is inferior to a life with faith. Just stop it. Take that on faith, if you have to.

"They're just so bitter and hateful, so argumentative and demanding-- it's self-defeating!" Hoo, boy. How many times have women heard that one? Or African Americans, during the civil rights struggle? Yeah, the "strident woman," "angry black man" crap. In any civil rights struggle, there's a leadership role for anger, for rage, for raising awareness, for negativity, AND there's a role for dialog, for open-mindedness, for building alliances and making strategic compromises. Atheists will deal with what's needed when and how, it's their struggle. No one is requiring you to engage with the ones expressing anger. If it bothers you, just disengage. But don't generalize from the experience.

Yes, some atheists feel a need to ridicule beliefs and believers. Boo-hoo, how terrible. They're oppressing us here in our theoarchy cone of privilege. You know what? If our beliefs aren't strong enough to stand a little ridicule, maybe we should be looking to our own faith rather than their lack of faith.

So, here on DU, I'm committed to doing those things. Not because I want the Undying Gratitude and Respect of the atheists here, any more than I feel obliged to acknowledge what should be the default operating style of men (working to overcome patriarchy) with Undying Gratitude and Respect.

But because while the struggle of atheists to overcome theoarchy is THEIR struggle, in the long run it benefits me and every other believer. Just as the ultimate end of patriarchy will benefit my grandsons and their sons.


A Woman Scorned vs. A Woman Wronged

And other idioms, assumptions, quotes, stereotypes, etc.-- and why they are minefields.

But-- let's start with "A Woman Scorned" versus "A Woman Wronged"

Surely you recognize the phrase, "a woman scorned," and its larger context from Congreve: "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned."

It has, in the 317 years since its appearance, become a cliche', a cultural shorthand, recognized wherever the English language holds currency. (Incidentally, it's also a paraphrase, not a quote. The actual quote is "Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned."

What does it say about women?

It says that when we feel "scorned"-- a word that has connotations of "rejection, dislike, disrespect," and more particularly, sexual rejection-- we get, not just angry, not just sad, not just resentful or depressed, but even more "furious" than hell itself.

Now, kindly think about this in the context of a few other words and phrases, such as "hysterical" and "on the rag" and an endless parade of others affirming that People With Vaginas (PWVs) are just so emotional, yanno. Not logical, rational, analytical folk like People With Penises (PWPs). All out of proportion.

Overreacting and all.

Yeah, those PWVs. They're ALWAYS overreacting. Hysterical.

Say, that's one helluva no-win box y'all have corralled us into, isn't it?

So, let's take a hypothetical PWP who gets called out for tossing off the phrase "woman scorned," who then A) Plays the "overreaction" card, and then B) claims that there's no real difference between "woman scorned" and "woman wronged."

O rly?


Here's the deal: There are about 4,000 years plus of written patriarchy, and about 600-700 years' worth of written English patriarchy, defining women in words written largely by men. Painting a portrait of women in harmony with what the men wanted to define us as, wanted to believe about us.

Write something, get it published, get it widely read, and suddenly it has currency all out of proportion to its validity.

Those quick shorthand phrases: "A rag and a bone," "woman scorned," "deadlier than the male," all of them... they are descriptions, and therefore definitions of PWVs, by PWPs, that have become cultural shorthand, and reinforced the patriarchal stereotypes and assumptions that form the strong bulwark against equity.

They're so powerful, so accepted, so ubiquitous, that we PWVs even find ourselves using them, without a thought. They encapsulate dog whistles we respond to just as much as the PWPs. They are the perfect linguistic judo that betrays us into defeating ourselves.

So, yes, when we call someone on them, we are reacting.

But if you think we're "over-reacting," think again.

I'm truly sorry that the desire of PWVs for equity in culture, society, economy, and politics, has rendered all that history, all that language, into a minefield, which requires the individual of any gender to stop and think, before using a quick shorthand. To analyze and decide, rather than tossing off the easy bon mot. It's a damn' nuisance, I know. To everyone.

But we are half the species, and in respect to oppression, patriarchy has been built longer, deeper, and more persistently into humanity's perception of "normal and right" than virtually any other kind of oppression.

It's gonna take at least that much effort to overcome it.

Can't we start here and now, by questioning those "easy" cliche's and idioms and quotes, etc., before we toss them off?

Or at least by saying "Whoa, never thought about that, yes I can see how it's sexist now that you've brought it to my attention. I'm not gonna use it that way again!" rather than going straight to doubling down with "overreaction" and self-justification?


What should, and shouldn't, "have consequences."

First, let me differentiate between what I consider an "effect" versus a "consequence."

You put your hand on a hot stove burner, the EFFECT is a nasty burn. The stove burner isn't providing a "consequence" for your stupidity or absent mindedness, any more than it's providing a "consequence" for the teakettle you just put there.

If you want a big, powerful car and you don't have the money to buy it, so you decide to just take one from a parking lot, you can expect a CONSEQUENCE of getting arrested when you're caught, and possibly further consequences from the court.

In a gray area there's a third thing: The risks we knowingly or unknowingly take.

In the late 1940s, my father started smoking because it was what young men did in those days, and no one knew it carried a risk. He died of lung cancer in 1970. A young woman I was close to in High School chose to go motor-cycle riding with her boyfriend, even though he didn't have a helmet for a passenger. He offered her his helmet, but she "wanted to feel the wind in her hair." This did not turn out well, and our whole class attended the funeral. I've often wondered how he feels about it, after all these years.

We can say that taking risks "carries consequences," but in fact, they're more like "effects with odds." No one decided that smoking should be discouraged and therefore added carcinogens to tobacco to create a "consequence" for smokers. (They DID add carcinogens to tobacco, but not for that reason.)

In other words, "consequence" has an ethical or moral dimension. When you do something that is deleterious to the well-being of your species, tribe, family, social group, etc., a consequence may be created to sanction that behavior.

So here's a short, VERY incomplete list of stuff that should definitely have consequences:

  • Spewing toxins into the air everyone has to breathe, the water everyone has to drink, and the soil that produces everyone's food.
  • Making sick veterans who have sacrificed to serve their country wait so long for health care that they get worse or die.
  • Seeking election ostensibly to serve the interests of everyone, and then acting entirely for the benefit of a few.
  • And then covering it up.
  • And then lying about the coverup.
  • And then lying about the lying.
  • Cruelty.
  • Child abuse.

And here's something that should generally not have consequences:

  • Having consensual sex.

(Which isn't to say that it won't have personal consequences, if, say, you're in another relationship at the time and the other person doesn't know you're cattin' around... there may definitely be some individual impact, there. But that's between y'all.)

Just my tuppeny'orth.

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