Chapel Hill

Many posts have been made already on the Chapel Hill shootings, some defending atheists against the charge of being a hateful ideology and some attacking– The one thing I have noticed lacking is the observation that both sides are actually correct.

In reality the term Atheist is now seen as an ideology by many atheists but, is still seen as a simple statement of non-belief in the supernatural by many other atheists. Is it any wonder theists (and some atheists!) pounce upon the atheist as a worldview position? It did not help us make the case that atheist was only one position about gods and the supernatural when some atheists pushed the term Atheism+ either.

The analogy of language with biological systems for such terms as ‘mind virus’ and evolution of language is as true with atheism as it is with feminism. No matter what we do, language change is inevitable– I would argue the new fangled term egalitarianism will also evolve and become a term proponents argue over as well in just a few years, as Identity politics hits that movement(?). I don’t even need to mention the argument over the term Agnostic do I?

This is precisely why I judge people on their behaviours and positions rather than any labels we use. It is why those of us who begrudgingly label ourselves atheist (After all, why is the sane position the one needing a label) are careful to make clear our position. There is no charge of ‘No true Scotsman’ for the usage of ‘atheist’ possible if we have a well defined definition that does not change in response to an attack. Incidentally it is precisely for this reason many organisations write open letters reiterating their positions after any event such as this.

The Chapel Hill shooting is also a real life example of the topics of many of my prior blog posts. e.g. ‘On heroes’,  ‘Propaganda’, ‘In Living Colour’, ‘Us vs. them’, ‘I’m not a true Scotsman’, ‘Why I am still a feminist, ‘I’m not a foot soldier in your war’ and ‘How to argue on the Internet’.


In Living Colour

Our first television set was a RCA black and white with a tiny screen– modern colour TV was still years away from the 1950’s. We watched much early Disney and Ed Sullivan and Saturday morning there were the westerns my dad liked. The bad guys always wore black stetsons and the good guys always wore white.

One thing I have learned growing up is never to assume that there are only two sides to an argument. We are not watching old black and white cowboy westerns and people are not always 100% right or wrong. The best policy for me has been to take individual components of a side and examine each issue taken by one side or another as dispassionately as I can– I ask questions, I examine the evidence, I argue it out with others. Sometimes one or two points from one side seems right to me. with many other points seeming right to me from another side.

I can’t do group think for this reason. I reserve the right to express support for some grievance by any group without necessarily agreeing with everything this group says. Remember, any social group will use propaganda tactics whether it is consciously or unconsciously and critical thinking is the prime defense here. I also reserve the right to not be confined by association fallacies, in other words, I try hard to examine points of view without regards to who is saying it. “Even a stopped clock is right twice a day” goes the old adage. This does leave me in the position of sometimes being equally hated by those who do take sides. I am often asked to “Take a side!” or “ Make up your mind!”. Sorry. I just don’t do that.

I have said it before, sometimes I wish people would talk to each other, try to walk in other’s shoes instead of boiling everything down to black and white. People are not ‘isms. People hurt and they lash out. “I guess I’m just a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” (Lennon of course) All I ask of you is to argue in a civil manner without repeating the same boring argument to me and without bullying. I have a large tolerance for diverse points of view provided you aren’t a bigot or bully. There are also appropriate times to argue and, appropriate venues– I don’t really think twitter is one.  Don’t be guilty of “Argumentum ad Twitterum”.

The Mind counter-Virus

I’ve always despaired at the inability of atheist/skeptical blogs to make any difference in the crazy nonsense people believe and even my own blog sub-title reflects that despair.

At the last skepticamp here in Ottawa after I had given my talk on propaganda I was asked by a member of the audience if perhaps the techniques of propaganda could be used for good instead of evil. I pointed out that the problem with that was “who gets the choose what is for the public good?”. Yet the question has haunted me. Recently at our local Unsermon one of the regulars wondered if we couldn’t somehow use propaganda techniques to teach people how to become critical thinkers? In the process they’d become immune to propaganda, much like a computer anti-virus to remove malignant computer virus.

I love the idea but sadly I don’t see how it could possibly work.

One of the techniques of PR (a modern name for propaganda) is “hero worship”. That is, one is more likely to believe and accept the ideas of a famous person and that to me directly contradict the ideals of critical thinking. Maybe all we can do is to encourage more science education.

I’d love to hear other ideas.


There is the common mistaken belief that propaganda is a political tool only used during wartime, but it is in daily use by governments, political parties, social interest groups, marketing, and professional organizations.

The most influential expert in propaganda in the 20th century was Edward Bernays who was also instrumental in renaming it to Public Relations. The irony of this Jewish writer’s works being admired by the Nazis and, the negative connotations of the term propaganda post war, were reasons enough.

The six basic tools of propaganda are easy enough to find online, but I thought it might be fun to compare these techniques with what has been happening with various factions in the atheist community for the past few years.

Name Calling

Name calling or demonization. A group you wish to attack is demonized by using non flattering names.


In war time we used “The Hun” (WWII) or “Geeks” (VIetnam), and in our own community terms such as “Slymepitter”,  “chillgirl”, “madfem”, “MRA”, and “baboon”

Glittering generalities

Used to appeal to deep seated beliefs without evidence by using slogans or even logos. These serve to form cohesion since we all  want to show we belong to a group with others who share our beliefs and a logo or slogan shows our commitment.

e.g. Atheistplus

“We are atheists plus!”

Slymepit (Phawrongula)

“Hypocrisy, destruction, and random stupidity from the baboon squad.”


The technique of taking an emotional support of something already dear to us and transferring the feeling to something else we want to support. e.g. An appeal to our feelings of injustice due to racial bigotry could be transferred to blindly support a group.

eg. Atheist plus

“We are…

Atheists plus we care about social justice,

Atheists plus we support womens’ rights,

Atheists plus we protest racism,

Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia,

Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism.”


Find a leader who is willing to support your cause and have them support it openly.

e.g. For marketing any sports figure will do.


Richard Carrier, PZ Myers


Thunderf00t, Abbie Smith

Plain folk

Where the a non famous speaker espouses a position giving the impression they are like you and me.


In marketing anyone supposedly off the street talking about any product.

In our own community I suppose the plain folk talk happens at atheist meetups.

Card Stacking

Never give your opponent the principle of charity. Always be careful to always show their side in the best possible light while distorting the position of their opponent as to show them in the worst possible light.

All sides have been guilty of this one.

I can’t state that propganda tactics are being used consciously by anyone but I can say that whenever tribalism takes place these techniques naturally fall out.