Back to previous post: The Taser, savior of law enforcement

Go to Making Light's front page.

Forward to next post: What I’ve been reading

Subscribe (via RSS) to this post's comment thread. (What does this mean? Here's a quick introduction.)

June 23, 2013

Memo to Time: Also, infectious disease not caused by witchcraft. You can look it up!
Posted by Patrick at 02:42 PM *

I suppose it’s very ten-years-ago to be appalled by anything written by the appalling Joe Klein, but this, from the cover story in this week’s Time, really does take the cake. Reporting on the work of a relief group helping with the aftermath of the Oklahoma tornadoes, Klein says:

…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—and there in the middle of it all, with a purposeful military swagger, were the volunteers from Team Rubicon.
Of course, the claim that “secular humanists,” or non-religious people, or atheists, never do this kind of thing…is either stupid as a bag of rocks, or a bald-faced lie. Hemant Mehta has the details. And shame on the editors of Time for letting this piece of straight-up bigotry go to press.
Comments on Memo to Time: Also, infectious disease not caused by witchcraft. You can look it up!:
#1 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2013, 03:28 PM:

Asshole, being supported by casual bigotry.

#2 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2013, 03:29 PM:

And reading it... it's worse than that. What a fuckmuppet.

#3 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2013, 03:41 PM:

How did Klein miss the reaction to Wolf Blitzer's interview with the survivor who happened to be an atheist?

#4 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2013, 03:50 PM:

So is he a willfully-ignorant fucktard, or a genuine lying sack of shit?

#5 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2013, 03:56 PM:

Wrote letter to Time. Klein really should not be allowed near a word processor without a keeper.

#6 ::: Benjamin Wolfe ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2013, 05:22 PM:

Blergh. Must resist urge to wash the dumbassery from my brain with alcohol.

#7 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2013, 05:31 PM:

Trou de cul.

#8 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2013, 05:57 PM:

P J. Evans @3:

Missed it by looking the other way as hard as he could.

#9 ::: Bruce Cohen Is gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2013, 06:01 PM:

Can't be URLs, there weren't any. But I've just made some Irish Breakfast tea, and there's bean soup, if the gnomes are hungry.

#10 ::: Help, I've been recursively gnomed! ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2013, 06:03 PM:


[Check the URL that you're using as your URL. It contains "http://Http:/" which is tripping the filters. -- Alrededor Moris, Duty Gnome]

#11 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2013, 06:20 PM:

It really does translate that directly from English, Serge?

#12 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2013, 06:38 PM:

I was under the impression that the various first-responder agencies that Klein noted were there from the very beginning -- plus CERT, the Medical Reserve Corps, the Humane Society, the Red Cross, and service organizations like the Lions, the Rotary, the Kiwanis -- were organized groups of secular humanists.

#13 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2013, 07:43 PM:

I just tried to email a letter to the editor at Time. I got this response: The recipient's mailbox is full and can't accept messages now. Please try resending this message later, or contact the recipient directly. May the backlog all share my opinion!

#14 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2013, 12:07 AM:

Rikibeth @ 8... Oui!

#15 ::: Chris ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2013, 10:12 AM:

I am no fan of Klein's, but to be charitable, he *could* be commenting on the fact that -- contrary to religious right propaganda -- people with no religious affiliation do not, in fact, go around referring to themselves as "secular humanists."

The so-called "religion" of secular humanism is an invention of religious right propaganda, since for some reason they cannot conceive of an "opposition" that is not as organized, militant, and fanatical as they are.

(Then again, being charitable to Kline may be simply a rhetorical exercise to some readers...)

#16 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2013, 10:13 AM:

The secular humanists don't stick an ad for their creed on every decent thing they do. This makes them invisible to a small mind (what Germans might call "ein kleiner Geist").

I'm not saying that humanists should don garish team jerseys. The fact we don't is still one of the things that appeals to me about the category.

#17 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2013, 12:08 PM:

Chris @15

On the other hand, I believe you've just seen Jim, who is religious, refer to several organizations he supports (and may belong to) as "secular humanist." It's an accurate description, as "atheist" would not be: they are secular organizations engaged in bettering humanity.

Klein's mistake is in assuming that because his thought process is "Join Christian(?) Club, do good works," mine would be "Join Atheist Club, do good works." In my experience, that's something that only atheists who recently left churches tend to seek out. For myself, as a lifelong atheist, I've never felt the need. There isn't a church-shaped hole in my life.* I'd join Good Works Club instead.

*This isn't meant as a derogatory comment, just that church membership does fill several social functions as well as its spiritual ones. If you just quit your church, you'll be looking for something to replace those social functions, and Atheist Club may be a good pick for some people. If you were never a church member, you probably don't have just one thing that is your church replacement. It's more likely that you fill those various social needs in different ways: you might meet friends and partners through hobby groups, stay involved in your community with block parties, and volunteer with a nonprofit that works on something you care about.

#18 ::: Howard Bannister ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2013, 01:41 PM:

Guys, the whole 'but nobody just calls themselves the secular humanists helping out' card is, while sometimes true, not at all helpful in excusing Klein.


Well, here's a list of organizations that helped out (from the link in the OP):

More than 4,300 people donated more than $120,000 for the family of Rebecca Vitsmun (she promised to donate to charity whatever money she doesn’t need).

Foundation Beyond Belief raised over $45,000 for Operation USA and the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma.

Atheists Giving Aid raised over $18,000 that will be given to local relief groups in Moore, Oklahoma and directly to families that need help.
Members of the FreeOK atheist group helped families who needed wreckage removed from their property:

Local atheist groups such as the Oklahoma Atheists, Atheist Community of Tulsa, the Lawton Area Secular Society, Norman Naturalism Group, and the Oklahoma State Secular Organization have organized volunteers, resources, and blood drives.
Organizers of the FreeOK conference going on this weekend held a literacy drive yesterday to “benefit the schools affected” by the tornadoes.

Those are groups explicitly named to convey that they are groups of non-religous folks helping out.

In addition to whatever aid non-religious folks funnel through general charities.

So, y'know, Joe Klein has not even the slightest excuse for missing this.

#19 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2013, 02:05 PM:

Apparently it's been decided that Joe Klein Deserves a Meme.

#20 ::: Xopher Halftongue is with the gnomes ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2013, 02:15 PM:

A cool lassi, perhaps?

#21 ::: lorax ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2013, 02:23 PM:

While it's not germane to the specific case of Oklahoma tornado relief, Klein's general point is also easily rebutted by looking at the list of all-time team leaderboards at The "Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers" are comfortably in first place with $11.4 million, with "Kiva Christians" coming in second with $7.4 million. Third place is a frequent travelers group, which has no religious content and thus is secular by any reasonable definition even if individual givers identify as religious. That's certainly a lower bound on each group, with some Christians choosing to donate with a more narrowly identified group (or a group that is not explicitly Christian) and some atheists donating based on a different identification (most of my own loans are identified as the LGBT group), but it's an obvious counterexample to his general point.

#22 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2013, 02:31 PM:

Devin, #17: There isn't a church-shaped hole in my life.

That's an excellent point, and it resonates with the way some religious people are so determined to define atheism itself as a religion. They seem to have the impression that not believing in their god leaves a god-shaped hole in one's life, which is then filled by atheism, therefore atheism has to be a religion. They're wrong, but unless/until you can get them to see that their basic assumption of the god-shaped hole is incorrect, you can't convince them of it.

#23 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2013, 04:25 PM:

They're wrong, but unless/until you can get them to see that their basic assumption of the god-shaped hole is incorrect, you can't convince them of it.

To be fair, it may not be incorrect so much as it is overgeneralized. Maybe they *do* have a god-shaped hole in their life, so they think that everyone else does too?

People that are mostly like most other people around them sometimes seem to me to have difficulty understanding that *some* other people aren't that much like them. Whereas for people that are not so much like most other people, that realization is a little hard to miss.

I happen to think that abandoning the idea of understanding other people by assuming they are just like you leads to deeper understanding of them in the long run, but maybe for a lot of people that first approximation works pretty well.

#24 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2013, 05:05 PM:

People that are mostly like most other people around them sometimes seem to me to have difficulty understanding that *some* other people aren't that much like them.

QFT. I was halfway through college before I ever met a person for whom religion was a subject of little or no interest. (I grew up in a small town in the Southeastern U.S. This guy was a Chinese grad student.) I'd met people who were vehemently opposed to religion, or to particular religions, but never anyone who was just indifferent (the way I feel about, say, golf or high fashion).

It gobsmacked me thoroughly at the time.

#25 ::: Older ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2013, 10:35 PM:

I've told a number of people that to say that I am an atheist is to vastly overstate my interest in the subject.

#26 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2013, 11:20 PM:

Older, I heard one atheist say he's uncomfortable with the word. "After all," he said, "I don't have a special word for the fact that I don't believe in ghosts."

#27 ::: Cheryl ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2013, 12:47 AM:

@26 Xopher:


#28 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2013, 02:29 AM:

Personally, I'm a devout agnostic -- I just find all this hearsay evidence of deities unconvincing. I don't know enough to assume there isn't one (or many) gods; but I certainly don't know enough to assume there is one.

#29 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2013, 11:04 AM:

And yet the media will always try to make atheism into just another religion. The kind of "religion" depicted in this article is akin to Niels Bohr nailing a horseshoe up over his door: "Oh, I don't believe in it. But I am told it works even if you don't believe in it."

Okay, sure, "some nonbelievers" still feel the need for "spirituality", whatever that may be. But some rabbis and priests are unbelievers, too.

#30 ::: Alexander Kosoris ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2013, 02:01 PM:

I wish there was a term for what I believe. I used to say agnostic, thinking that this meant I believe in a higher being without a specific religious denomination but, now knowing that it means 'undecided,' I can't really use such a term. It's really unimportant, but it would be nice to be able to say a single word and have everyone know what I'm talking about, rather than having to describe my beliefs in full. Or maybe I'm just lazy.

As a digression, while I do agree that Klein's notion presented at the end of the article was ignorant and stupid, I enjoyed the first three quarters. It's interesting and encouraging to see community service *appear* to have a positive impact on PSTD, and it seems to make logical sense in my mind. I, personally, would like to see further research in the subject.

#31 ::: lorax ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2013, 02:19 PM:

Alexander Kosoris @30, would either "deist" or "theist" reasonably describe your beliefs?

#32 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2013, 02:20 PM:

Alexander Kosoris @30, have you considered Deist? If the deity you believe in is largely a non-interventionist one, not prone to flashy miracles, this may fit.

#33 ::: Alexander Kosoris ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2013, 03:37 PM:

lorax @ 31 and Cassy B. @ 32:

Deism is definitely not a good description. I believe in intervention from an all-powerful God, but on a level that is grounded in reality. As an example, while God may be able to perform miracles, going against the laws of nature that have been put into place by him/her/it, he/she/it is not a magician, and does not do so.

I suppose theism could describe my beliefs; I just always assumed that theists believe in a personified being. I think of my God as more of a state of mind or energy (although, I may personify God to help my and others' understanding of him/her/it).

#34 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2013, 03:54 PM:

Alexander Kosoris @33, sounds very much like standard Theism to me, then. For what it's worth.

#35 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2013, 03:57 PM:

Me @34; I typoed my email addy. Could a mod fix it, please? It's correct in this one.

(I don't know why the site is forgetting my information....)

#36 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2013, 04:53 PM:

What in my comment (or anything else preceding #18) could be taken as "excusing" Klein?

#37 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2013, 06:12 PM:

I used to consider myself an atheist.

These days I consider myself an antitheist. As in: all religions I am aware of seem to me to be a cognitive error, nothing more and nothing else.


1) If an entity that claims to be a deity shows up and is willing and able to repeatedly violate the laws of physics, I'll re-evaluate my stance. (Bonus points: resurrecting dead-and-cremated-or-buried persons personally known to me, who subsequently convince me that they're the same person and not just a zimboe. I will not excessively complicate this test by insisting on, e.g., my own lack of sentience.)

2) The simulation hypothesis or the Boltzmann Brain hypothesis (the latter taken at face value rather than as an argument about variant cosmology) are both really hard to disprove, and both imply a larger embedded context than our observable universe.

#38 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2013, 06:35 PM:

Charlie Stross @37: The p-zombie article you link to is pretty interesting. I expect the existence of p-zombies is a Godelian-style undecidable proposition within any logical system describing the real world, so they're not actually usable for disproving physicalism.

#39 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2013, 06:40 PM:

Charlie Stross #37: The thing that keeps me from being a full-fledged atheist is my experience with shamanism and theurgy.

Basically, conversing with spirits and gods can give information about, and effects upon, your own mind, which are not casually accessible by "ordinary cognition". And while declaring that such experiences are all eidolons of neurochemistry doesn't seem to interfere with the experiences themselves, it's not particularly helpful in using them.

#40 ::: Jeremy Preacher ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2013, 07:52 PM:

I usually describe myself as "not agnostic so much as apathetic." The subject just isn't of any particular interest to me.

#41 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2013, 08:00 PM:

Church-shaped hole and god-shaped hole are not the same thing. There are plenty of theists who have no church-shaped hole in their lives because they can practice a free-lance spirituality without needing to join an organization. (They might not call it spirituality either.)

#42 ::: Andrew Plotkin ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2013, 08:19 PM:

I call myself an atheist. This does not exclude the possibility of finding out more in the future and changing my mind about gods. An evidence-based view of the world is what I'm identifying with!

(This raises the amusing possibility that God turns up in Davis Square one day, and after that I say "Oh, I'm still an *atheist*, it's just that I believe in God now. Turned out to be bad choice of label, eh? Like 'atoms' or 'oxygen'. But it would be confusing to change it now.")

(Rather Greg Egan-ish.)

Anyhow, people can identify as Christian or Jewish and still talk honestly about their doubts, their lapses of faith. I figure I can identify as atheist while acknowledging the possibility that there's a god out there I haven't met.

Final point: perhaps there's someone out there who has heard of me (as a kinda-well-known game designer), but who lives in a heavy-handedly theistic subculture and is struggling with the possibility of atheism. (As I never struggled.) I owe it to that person to say I'm an atheist, without quibbling or hesitancy.

I don't expect that people in fannish circles suffer from lack of atheist role models. Maybe nobody who's heard of me does. Still.

#43 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2013, 12:03 AM:

Andrew Plotkin #42: Turned out to be bad choice of label, eh?

Maybe, maybe not -- one of my books in Lucien's library has Very Powerful Beings showing up and basically slapping the world into shape. Some of those are fosterlings from space-dwelling species (not space-travelling, but space-dwelling -- big and powerful enough that they need a fully formed personality to wrap their hatchlings around, on grounds of public safety), others are "bespoke powers of the Human Destiny", but they all call themselves gods, because that's their assigned role with respect to humanity.

#44 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2013, 06:52 AM:

Dave Harmon @43: I've described myself as an agnostic, on the grounds that I've read way too much science-fiction to rule anything out.

Point of fact, I do rule out perpetual motion machines and multi-level marketing schemes...

#45 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2013, 09:46 AM:

Jeremy Preacher @ #40:

I once came across a web site that was trying to spread the coinage "apatheist".

#46 ::: Tony Garnock-Jones ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2013, 08:38 PM:

I was very pleased to be introduced to the notion of ignosticism (notably distinct from agnosticism) the other day. An ignostic rejects questions of the (non)existence of a god or gods as under- or ill-defined.

#47 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2013, 02:58 AM:

I don't know about the Oklahoma relief efforts, but after Katrina a bunch of my friends worked with groups like Inveneo and Burners Without Borders to set up communications systems and support relief work there and in other places around the world. Some of those folks were probably theists, some of them are definitely atheists.

I'd disagree with Jim's characterization of the groups he mentions in #12, though - they're secular organizations of humanists, which isn't the same as organizations of secular humanists. Many of the people I've known in those groups are religious, but they're not religious groups.

And most people I've known who call themselves "secular humanists" as opposed to atheists are part of organized groups that discuss humanism and related issues. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see them doing the same kinds of relief work that organized churches do; unlike unorganized atheists, they've got an organization to help with projects like that.

#48 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2013, 07:07 PM:

The "Joe Klein Deserves a Meme" post was a hoot. Only, I wanted the footprints one to say,

And God said, "During your times of trial and suffering where you see only one set of footprints... it was then that Joe Klein was nowhere to be found."

(I never saw Joe Klein at our old weekly community knitting sessions that the neighborhood Pagans held after-hours at our local New Age store. Nor was he around to help deliver the knitted wearables to the recipients either.)

Smaller type (our default)
Larger type
Even larger type, with serifs

Dire legal notice
Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.