Shelley Segal in Fresno

Singer, Songwriter, and activist Shelley Segal is on tour and has offered the secular community of Fresno the chance to see her in an exclusive performance!


Date:  Tuesday, February 28th
Time: 6:30 pm to 9:00 pm
Location: Maw ‘n Paw Barbecue,  2686 N Clovis Ave (see map)


Tickets / cost: Donations  (see below)


You may know Shelley from her song “Saved” which is currently being used as the Intro music to the Atheist Experience video call-in show hosted by the Atheist Community of Austin.



Tickets / cost:

CVAAS is still putting together our nonprofit status, so we don’t have much to work with yet.  In order to make this happen, we need your donations!


This takes you to the GoFundMe page
Click on the “GoFundMe” button to help CVAAS make this happen!
Click on the button on the right to make a donation and help CVAAS bring Shelley to our own private performance.  We’ve already raised over a third of the costs in the first day!


This GoFundMe will pay for Shelley’s appearance and fees and will be used to secure the venue.  


If we do not meet our goal, then CVAAS will cancel the event and all money will be returned.


However, if we DO meet our goal, then CVAAS will add a “stretch goal” and from that we will provide a free dinner to everyone who attends!


Maw ‘n Paw Barbecue will supply the venue and the dinner for this event.  If you attended last year’s “Heretic’s Barbecue” you may remember the delicious food catered for us by Maw ‘n Paw.  We will offer a meal for Shelley’s performance.  Tri-tip & chicken, plus two sides, bread, and a drink all for $8.50 (plus tax).


Excellent Barbecue! Click the logo to see their menu.

Of course, if we meet our stretch goal then dinner will be free for all attendees!


Seating for this event is limited to 60 people, but everyone who donates $15 or more will be guaranteed one seat.


So, what do you say?  We all know that the secular community is important, now we have the chance to show it!  Make a donation and help this event happen!



Who comes to CVAAS meetings?

CVAAS meets at Panera’s for a monthly brunch with Skeptics Without A Cause (SWAC) followed immediately by the CVAAS event planning committee. We take over several tables, and although we are not loud we are also not concerned with being overheard.

Chick Tract, "Room 310"
A photo of the Chick Tract left for us to find.
During our December 2016 meeting the people at the booth next to us left a Chick Tract behind on their table when they left the restaurant.  They placed it prominently in a way that made it clear that this was a message to our group. 

During last Sunday’s meeting (January 2017) we noticed that a gentleman was video recording our meeting on his phone.  I quietly got up and walked over to him and took a snapshot of him on my own phone.

“Hi, I’m Mark.” I introduced myself as he stared, startled at having his photo taken.  “I’m in charge of this atheist group, and we’re having a get-together.  We don’t mind you recording us, but I thought it was only fair that I get your photo too.”

I then walked back to my chair and sat down.  Our group ignored him completely and kept talking (probably about the tele-transportation paradox in Star Trek).  A few minutes later I noticed the gentleman had left.



Cropped image of “orbs”.   Orbs are an image artifact common to digital images.  They are exaggerated by digital image capture and compression algorithms that perform pixel averaging of pixels captured by digital image sensors.

Attrib. CC 2.0 by Stephanie Clifford.
Before CVAAS officially organized, we were just another meetup discussion group of skeptics and atheists.  

From the beginning, we have had interesting guests at our meetings.  We have listened to “9/11 Truthers”, we have viewed the pictorial evidence of “orbs” brought to us by ghost hunters.  During our meetings, people have spoken to us of world-wide conspiracies such as the conspiracy of a Jewish world order, or of the conspiracy of scientists to keep us all ignorant of Creationism.

In prayer
Praying with the Mormons. Dec. 2011
After the formation of CVAAS, we hosted the Mormons at one of our meetings.  They promised us evidence of God in answer to our sincere prayers.  Several of us prayed, but perhaps we just were not sincere enough because we are still waiting for evidence.

Some guests seemed to demonstrate signs of mental illness.  One such gentleman brought several thick binders filled with accountant ledger paper in which he had carefully filled with his exacting observations of the date and time in which many different traffic lights in Fresno had changed color. He claimed the trends he found in his records were evidence that these lights were controlled by witchcraft.

Some guests who have attended our meetings have actually managed to concern us.


horst2Remember the character “Horst” from the Disney movie Ratatouille? Horst had a line where he said that he killed a man, “With this thumb!”

Three years before the release of Ratatouille, our discussion group had a guest who claimed to be an ex-Soviet assassin.


He was an older guy but he was big and muscled and very fit.  He looked like he could break any of us in half, and would be bored while doing so.  He had a Slavic accent and his manner was a little unsettling, alternating between jovial and then suddenly serious.  He told us that after the fall of the Soviet Union he worked for the Russian Mafia until he came to America to get away from the violence.  He said that in his past he was very dangerous and that he knew how to “kill a man with MY THUMB!”  He made us all a touch nervous and we were mostly relieved when he didn’t come to any other meetings.

When the movie Ratatouille came out the line from Horst had me laughing uncontrollably.

There was one guest who concerned us more in retrospect than he did during the time we knew him.

The Fresno atheists and skeptics discussion group started holding meetings in October of 2002.   At our December meeting, we had a guest who was very enthusiastic about our new group.  He told us that his name was Aaron and that he used to be Navy enlisted.  His last duty assignment was in California.  He had a motorcycle and a goatee.  Aaron showed up to one or two more meetings in the new year, and then he stopped showing up.  We figured that he found the discussions boring.  

Aaron Kilner
Aaron Kilner

Then in October we found out that Aaron Stokes was really Aaron Kilner, and that he was part of the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department’s efforts to infiltrate local “subversive” organizations.  Most notably he infiltrated Peace Fresno, among others.

Our co-founder, Richard, brought our attention to the Fresno Bee story about Aaron and found his photo.  It was the same guy we remembered.  We were all a little bemused, and a little amused that we “scary atheists” were briefly targeted by the Sheriff’s anti-terrorism team.

And this leads us to current events…

Since the presidential election, I have heard local progressive group leaders expressing their concerns about the possibility of their groups being infiltrated.  Perhaps some groups have cause for concern.  I don’t know.  California laws have changed due to this incident.  

As a 501(c)3 organization, CVAAS is and will remain apolitical.  We are formed for educational purposes and will continue to educate our community on science-based, Constitutional, and human rights issues.  We will continue to support the secular community and will support the creation of new non-theistic organizations.  

We will continue to do what we do openly, without fear, and with great interest in the guests and visitors who come to our meetings.  We hope that our guests and visitors – that you – will become members and help us continue to create great events, educate our community, and participate in community service with us.


Debates don’t discover truth.

The “Does God Exist?” debate in Bakersfield at the Garces Memorial High School between Catholics and atheists could have been renamed, “Captain Strawman vs. The Angry Atheist!”

I had some hope for this debate. Unfortunately, it went very much the way that I thought it would go.

When CVAAS was first contacted by Chris Plance, the representative from Garces, he said that he was, “… hoping to expose our students to an atheist point of view and see how Catholics interact and respond in dialogue.”  He also said that students at the school were “somewhat skeptical” so it would be an opportunity “…to have them ask you questions and iron out what an atheist point of view looks like.”

But further text conversation with Chris showed that he was not actually interested in teaching students about atheism or in having any sort of informative dialog. He wanted an adversarial debate. I recognized that Garces wanted a confrontation where they could use a debate format to attack atheists.

Debates are a poor way to find out what is true.  As the NCSE has pointed out, “…debates are “drive-by shootings” when it comes to critical thinking.

It really is just this simple – an argument can be logical, persuasive, and completely reasonable, and it can still be wrong.  Philosopher Karl Popper has shown that claims of knowledge cannot be justified and that they are at best held tentatively, with the understanding that they are only probably true and that given the right evidence they must be modified or overturned entirely.  Any claim that cannot be falsified, that makes no predictions is merely an assertion.

After being rejected by me, Chris pushed so I offered that there was another atheist group in Bakersfield. The first contact I provided also rejected him, but my friend 7 Bates (yes, his name really is a number, right on his birth certificate) was very eager to try it. 7 is the president of the Atheist Society of Kern (ASK). He told me that he was skilled in debate and that he could throw any sort of trap back at the Garces team.

7 chose Nick as his debate partner. Nick is the vice president of ASK, and is an intelligent young man and a former Marine and combat vet.

On the side of the Catholics, Chris teaches theology. His partner Timothy Gordon has a licentiate (Ph.L) that he earned in Rome. He also has a J.D. from San Diego, and he teaches math and theology for Garces. One of the bios that I read about Timothy says that he has a degree in philosophy.

From the very beginning of the debate, it was made very clear that the debate was not about exposing students to an atheist point of view. Instead, it was about crushing atheism.

The first speaker was Timothy, who whipped out his first strawman argument of the evening by saying that atheism was “the last superstition” and that Roman Catholicism was the “only worldview that was not a superstition” which demonstrated immediately that he did not understand atheism.

That happened repeatedly with Timothy. His arguments often misstated the position of the atheist speakers. Most glaringly this happened when he repeatedly spoke about atheists and causality.

One of the debate questions was about causality. 7 tried to explain the very real problems that physicists have with causality. Unfortunately, he didn’t explain this well. Briefly, there is a difference in how causality is treated in philosophy and in physics, and if you explain it from a physics point of view a (poor) philosopher may attack it using terms from philosophy.

Timothy didn’t try to understand the atheist response. He instead told the audience again and again that, “The atheists don’t believe in Causality!” He stated incredulously that the atheists must have been very surprised to arrive at the debate.

Atheists do tend to be curious about causality, and we try to understand it – even though it is complicated and wrapped up in General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics.  The spontaneous creation of virtual particles would seem to undermine causality, and Dirac’s equation along with careful experimental measurements demonstrate the existence of virtual particles.

But we can skip most physics and look at the question from a position that would seem to agree with both physics and philosophy.  If causality depends on space and time, then in a place where neither exist causality itself may not exist.  Did space and time exist before the Big Bang?  Could the Big Bang happen uncaused in a place where causality doesn’t exist?  If space and time did exist before the Big Bang, is it connected causally to our universe? The answer to all of these questions is that no one knows.  But stating that an uncaused event could NOT happen before the Big Bang is merely an assertion, unsupported by evidence.

Timothy also tried to supply evidence for God by whipping out all the old philosophical arguments for the existence of God. He diligently trotted out Aristotle, Plato, St. Anselm, Aquinas, and the “logical necessity” propounded by Descartes. He conveniently did NOT mention the ways in which all these philosophical arguments are flawed. And although he briefly mentioned Hume, he didn’t mention that Hume had provided a philosophical argument against the existence of God.

Timothy also made no mention of the modern philosophers who have put the last nail into the coffin of whether philosophy can prove that a deity exists. These include Bertrand Russell, Karl Popper, Daniel Dennett, and noted philosopher and Christian apologist William Lane Craig, who honestly pointed out in his book “Reasonable Faith” that NO apologetic argument or philosophy can prove that Christianity (or God) is true.

When I compared Timothy’s philosophical arguments for God against Dr. Craig’s admission that philosophy fails to prove God I started wondering if Timothy actually had a degree in philosophy.

Timothy holds a Juris Doctor degree, so it is unsurprising that he briefly tried to use the analogy of a court case to say that these philosophical arguments are reasonable. This conveniently disregards the facts that science doesn’t build and organize knowledge through court cases, and the Innocence Project has provided clear evidence that things “proved” in court are not necessarily true.

X-Y chart of knowledge vs belief
The claim that no gods exist is unjustified, as is the claim that a god exists. That’s why most atheists make no claim of knowledge, only of belief.

The next biggest strawman came when Timothy tried to pin down a definition of atheism. 7 pointed out that he was an agnostic atheist, which to him meant that he can’t prove that some sort of deity does NOT exist. Timothy took that to mean that 7 was “on the fence” about God and that he was already halfway a Catholic! And he pounded on this strawman several times.

Unfortunately, the atheists didn’t take the opportunity to point out that Timothy was also an atheist toward many thousands of other possible Gods, so if we are talking about “percentages” Timothy is much more an atheist than 7 is a Catholic.

Mostly, 7 did fairly well for not being a philosopher or a physicist. I disliked the “parting shots” he took at the end of his time periods that derailed the conversation into areas that were too often firmly biblical. Most atheists do know the bible fairly well and are interested in bringing up problems with it, but Catholics are possibly the only Christians who are better versed in the Catholic Bible than atheists. And these were Catholic teachers, who presumably know the Catholic Bible VERY well. (Note: The Catholic bible is somewhat different from the Protestant bible.)

And although 7 is a good speaker, he also worked too hard at trying to be a friend to the audience. His casual attitude didn’t fare well against two charismatic speakers who are also trained teachers.

But I’ve said a lot about 7 and Timothy. Nick and Chris were also there. In comparison with their counterparts, Nick and Chris were definitely the weaker speakers. Nick let his emotions get in his way. He took the debate as a form of combat, and by the end of the debate he had alienated most of the audience. It didn’t matter how good his points were – he needed to be calmer, more dispassionate. Unfortunately, the meme of the “angry atheist” was perpetuated.


Chart of implicit vs explicit atheism
Implicit atheists came to atheism without giving it much thought, as Lee Strobel describes in his book, “The Case for Christ”. Explicit atheists reject the idea of believing in a deity based on critical reasoning as shown in Dan Barker’s book “Godless”. Negative or “weak” atheism does not claim that god(s) exist. Positive or “strong” atheism makes the claim that god(s) do not exist.

Chris responded to the baiting comments tossed out by 7, and instead of staying on topic he was diverted. Chris did mention on several occasions that he came to Catholicism through atheism. But since this wasn’t a dialog the atheists didn’t have the opportunity to ask him a very relevant question. “Why did you think atheism was convincing, and why do you no longer believe that to be true?” This could have been used to speak about the difference between implicit and explicit atheism. It could also demonstrate that a person who doesn’t come to atheism through reason won’t require reason to leave it. Was Chris merely an implicit atheist, for the same reasons as C.S. Lewis or Lee Strobel?


Chris also said that Catholicism was true due to the Three Motives of Credibility of Faith (motiva credibilitatis) which is mentioned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Chris said that these reasons for believing that Catholicism is true include the witness of miracles, the witness of prophecy, and the witness of the long existence of the Catholic Church itself.


But we should ask ourselves, where are these miracles witnessed? In the Bible. Where are these prophecies witnessed? In the Bible. The Bible here is being used as the evidence.  Using the Bible as evidence is seen to be reasonable by Christians.  Jesus said in his Sermon on the Plain (Luke ch.6) that his words are the foundation for everything.  But really the Bible is just testimony, it is a series of claims that must in themselves be backed by evidence. Chris also said that the existence of the Church is the evidence that the Bible (and its claims) are true – which is a circular argument. The Bible is true because the Church exists, and the Church exists because the Bible is true.

And miracles happen all the time in stories. Miracles are so common that they are called “Deus ex Machina” which refers to a very ancient practice of using a crane to lower God (or a god) onto the stage to set things right at the end of a theatrical play. Prophecy is also a story favorite. Over 700 years before the supposed birth of Christ the Iliad and the Odyssey featured both fulfilled prophecy and many miracles. The earlier books of the Harry Potter series had a prophecy that was fulfilled in later books. Shall we assume that Harry Potter and the gods of Olympus are real?

The three Motives of Credibility as quoted by Chris turn out to be merely unsupported assertions, no matter how much he wants to believe otherwise.

The debate was long, and the audience was very pleased. It reminded me of the scene in “Persuasion” at the pump room in Bath where a member of the Philosophical Society crows to Lady Russell, “The atheists were completely routed!” The tone of victory after the debate was identical.

And that tone also made it very clear that this wasn’t about dialog. It wasn’t about understanding. It wasn’t about learning about atheism. It was a way of both shielding students from understanding while telling them that atheism was wrong or unfounded. And a lot of words, unsupported by evidence or fact were used to do this.

After this win, Garces Memorial High School is eager to schedule another debate. 7, as president of ASK is also eager to join them. The next debate could be on morality. But the question of the existence of a deity remains unsettled, so any assertion of a morality based on a deity will also be unsettled. The cart would be placed in front of the horse in such a debate. The debate might as well be about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Debates seem of little use to me. Too often they are like this – assertions made without evidence, poor philosophy, and lots of ego. As President of CVAAS I will continue to refuse any invitation to a public debate. If people want to learn about atheism I will happily arrange a dialog – a discussion around a table. I am happy to offer a presentation followed by questions and answers and dialog.  I would be happy to engage in a written dialog.  I invite anyone interested to contact me and CVAAS. If you’re serious, I can make it happen.

But don’t confuse a debate with a dialog. It is intellectually dishonest to say that you are interested in “an atheist point of view” when it is obvious that you are only interested in attacking a threat to your faith-based beliefs.

“Does God Exist?” A debate in Bakersfield

ValleyCoR member organization, the Atheist Society of Kern (ASK) has been invited to participate in a debate at the Graces Memorial High School (GMHS) in Bakersfield, California.

This debate is open to the public but is aimed at those students of GMHS who are expressing doubt or apathy toward the existence of God.

UPDATE:  Due to a scheduling conflict, Bakersfield Community College professor Neal Stanifer will not attend the debate.  Nick Miranda, vice-president of ASK will take his place.

UPDATE 2:  Read about what happened at the debate here.  (Link)

Defending the question are GMHS teachers Chris Plance and Timothy Gordon.

Chris Plance is the event organizer. Plance is a theology teacher who came to Bakersfield in 2015, and was the Director of Evangelization and Mission at John Paul the Great, Catholic University before then. Plance received his Master of Arts in Theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.
Garces Memorial High School Crest
Timothy Gordon first came to GMHS in 2006 with a Master of Arts from Loyola Marymount, LA. In 2007 Gordon left Bakersfield to earn his licentiate (Ph.L) from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He returned to GMHS in 2014. Gordon has also earned his J.D. from the University of San Diego School of Law. Gordon teaches theology and math at GMHS.

Proposing the question are ASK president Seven Bates and ASK Vice-President Nick Miranda.

Bates is a software engineer, web developer, and owner of a media production company. He received his BA from Rice University in Houston, Texas. Bates is also very familiar with the policy debate style that will be used in this debate.

Atheist Society of Kern logoMiranda is a Marine Corps Veteran of Iraq and the founding owner of a marketing firm.  Before coming to atheism Miranda worked full time in ministry for Victory Outreach Ministries International.  Miranda is familiar with philosophical arguments in favor of the existence of a deity.

Garces Memorial High School is a Catholic School named for Father Fancisco Garcés, a Spanish Franciscan friar, missionary, and explorer of the American Southwest in the mid-1700’s. GMHS is administered by the Fresno Diocesan Office of Education, part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, whose territories include the counties of Fresno, Inyo, Kern, Madera, Merced, Mariposa, Kings and Tulare. GMHS teaches evolution and the Big Bang as fact, but also requiring God’s creation – in conformance to Pope Francis statement that “Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation…”

The debate itself will be recorded, and the recording and materials will be available after the debate.

Central Valley Coalition of Reason logoIf you would like to learn more about the Central Valley Coalition of Reason, visit the ValleyCoR website here.

You can also learn more about the Atheist Society of Kern from their Facebook page.

Central Valley Coalition of Reason

Have you heard of ValleyCoR?

On May 4, 2011, several secular groups in the San Joaquin Valley joined together with the United Coalition of Reason to form a local coalition – the Central Valley Coalition of Reason – also called “ValleyCoR”. 

CVAAS was one of these three groups.

Together with UnitedCoR, these groups announced their formation with the prominent placement of a billboard in Fresno.  Located on the Northwest side of the corner of Saginaw and Blackstone, this billboard demonstrated that secular organizations exist in and around the San Joaquin Valley, and invited members of the secular community to join.

valleycorOf course, this was seen by the local news as a very controversial statement and the resulting 2-week news cycle generated by local television networks and newspapers highlighted exactly the necessity of raising our community’s awareness of the secular, skeptical and freethought communities.

Since our first formation, a few secular groups have folded, and have been replaced.  And ValleyCoR has grown geographically from a “local” community to one that stretches from Bakersfield to Fresno, and perhaps soon beyond.

The most recent organization to join ValleyCoR is the Atheist Society of Kern.  This group is well established and serves several hundred secular people in and around Bakersfield.

Who are the members of ValleyCoR?  Check out the website and see!

The “Next Step” for CVAAS

CVAAS has been doing some big things lately. It’s time for us to ask ourselves:

nextstep What’s Next?  What is our Next Step?

Since Heretic’s Barbecue is wrapped up for 2016, and we’ve had a couple weeks to rest and recover, it would seem to be time to figure out where we are going to go next.

CVAAS is a California recognized corporation. We will be a non-profit. So now what?

As president of CVAAS there are definitely some things I would like to see us accomplish – and not just on our own. I want to help our other members do this with us.

So let’s have a meeting and discuss this.  The Next Step meeting is now on our event calendar.

Topics I plan to cover for this meeting:
  • Brainstorming our future – we need ideas from everyone for what we want the secular community in the San Joaquin Valley to be involved with.
  • Future planning – I want to create 1, 2, and 5 year plans for future goals.
  • New Groups – Encouraging the creation of, and offering support for new organizations.
  • Secular / Skeptical community support – We can’t forget to offer events for everyone – for those people who just want to get together and talk, to those who want to do.
  • Community outreach – I want to raise awareness of the secular community in the San Joaquin Valley. To be accepted as part of our community we need to become more visible in our community. I think we can do good things while doing this. Highway cleanup, homeless assistance, and be more active in community events.
  • Public relations – we’re lousy at this. We need to be better. Community outreach will help, and we can get training for those of us who want it.
  • Growth & Membership – we need ideas here.
  • Raising funds – as we become a nonprofit, we need a way to pay for our status, for our events, for educating the public about the secular community.
  • Pie-in-the-sky goals – we should make some amazing goals. A secular community center? Sunday Assembly? A full-blown secular conference with speakers, workshops, and panels? Let’s see if they are not so silly.
What I really want to see is brainstorming, and to use that to figure out our direction and goals in order to meet our purpose.

There are a LOT of opportunities for us, and several offers of various forms of assistance if we can coordinate it all.

Are you interested in being part of this?  Then come to our November 13th Event!

Heretic’s Barbecue in One Week!

9th Annual Heretic's Barbecue
Click here to learn more!
The Heretic’s Barbecue is just a week away!  Are you ready?

CVAAS has been working hard to prepare for the Heretic’s Barbecue.  The venue is locked in, we’re doing our final sound checks, the caterer is standing by.

Have you done your part?

Haven’t you wanted to go to one of the Secular or Skeptical conventions, but couldn’t because it was hours away by car or even a few states away?  

Bean Bag Toss Boards
“Cornhole” – bean bag toss

Here’s a secular and skeptical mini-con, right in your own backyard!

So you know about the food, and about our speakers – but did you know that this is a family friendly event?  There will be a pumpkin decorating contest, we have a “Cornhole” or bean bag toss setup, plus horseshoes.   Also the Moravia ship is in port on the children’s playground – this is a great place to be a ship captain, or pirate!

ticketsMore information:

  • CVAAS will be selling entry tickets at the door ($19 for adults, $5 for children 12 and under).  We do encourage you to purchase your tickets online.
  • There are still tables available for hosting – if your organization wants to promote itself, or if you would like to advertise your goods to a secular community, you can still do so by purchasing a table.  Your purchase price also gives you one ticket for entry.
It’s going to be a great day!  Come and be a part of it!

Changing Deeply Held Beliefs

Everyone has beliefs, and our beliefs are used to inform our actions.  Our beliefs can be well supported or not.  Well supported, or “justified” beliefs tend to be backed with good evidence and reasoning.  Poorly supported beliefs are too often supported with wishful or “magical” thinking, or lack proof altogether.

Poorly supported beliefs that lead to actions which adversely affect us all are a serious concern for everyone.  Too often bad beliefs are used to ethically justify subduing or eliminating some basic human rights.

"Conversation" by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
“Conversation” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

All too often attempts to persuade people that they should give up a poorly supported belief go nowhere.  A person who seems otherwise rational will seem to become more convinced that some bit of reasoning supports their position, even when it is demonstrated that it does not.  For example, when given the problems with the Cosmological Argument, a Christian or a Muslim or a Hindu will too often instead believe that this is an even better argument for Yahweh, Allah, or Vishnu.

This “doubling down” is known as the “Backfire Effect,” a term coined by  Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler in a study published in the journal Political Behavior.  (Link to PDF)  This term refers to the observation that a person’s established poorly supported beliefs do not change in the face of contradictory evidence, but instead become stronger.  A person’s confidence that their beliefs are correct will often increase in the face of opposing facts.

This is especially frustrating for skeptics who state that they will re-evaluate their beliefs when presented with sufficient evidence.  And while secular and skeptical people are also susceptible to poorly reasoned beliefs it is also true that, “We eat our own!”  Meaning that we tend to correct our peers who hold irrational beliefs.  We are often, ah… emphatic about it.

Unfortunately this method of correcting bad beliefs is useful only in skeptical and scientific communities.  It isn’t very conducive to actually changing minds in the general population, especially when these attempts actually strengthen a poorly supported belief.

Over the last few months I have encountered several people and groups using a way of communicating that seems to be making a real difference.  This new form of communication is subtle and works toward urging people to be more open and more accepting to justified beliefs.  Instead of requiring a binary flip between a poorly supported belief and a well supported belief, these methods work toward decreasing confidence in bad beliefs.

"Manual For Creating Atheists" - artworkThe first of these is Peter Boghossian, and his book, “A Manual for Creating Atheists“.  Dr. Boghossian is the Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Portland State University who does research in critical thinking, philosophy of education and moral reasoning.  In his book, Boghossian talks about “street epistemology”, which is a set of techniques used by secular people to get religious people to think more critically about the beliefs that they hold.  Instead of presenting facts that directly contradict a person’s beliefs, this book guides people in having low pressure interventions that act as a sort of “treatment” to increase the likelihood that the subject changes their behavior.

Anthony Magnabosco is a skeptic and agnostic atheist who lives in San Antonio, Texas.  He also practices street epistemology and films his interactions which he then publishes on Youtube.  He’s been doing this since early 2014.  In his Youtube videos, Magnabosco impliments Boghossian’s teachings.  At the beginning of these interactions Magnabosco first gets his subjects to quantify their belief based upon a scale.  He does so again at the end of their conversation to see if their confidence in their beliefs has changed.  Frequently, this confidence does decrease, and in many cases you can actually see a person become thoughtful and introspective as they consider the conversation.

“A Manual for Creating Atheists” and Magnabosco’s Youtube channel are excellent resources, but it is difficult for many to practice these techniques an become comfortable with them.  To address this, Dr. Boghossian, along with other contributors, have created a downloadable smartphone app called, “Atheos” which will train rational people in street epistemology methods.  This app, like the Youtube videos, teach you to be effective, and show when you should walk away from an interaction.

Another technique I’ve encountered is called, “Deep Canvassing”.  I learned about this technique on the “You Are Not So Smart” (YANSS) podcast hosted by David McRaney.  YANSS is an excellent podcast that I recommend to all skeptics.

McRaney investigated the results of the Deep Canvassing study that was created by the Leadership LAB.  The Leadership LAB is a program of the Los Angeles LGBT Center.  This study focused on ways to learn how to change people’s minds, scientifically.

This study was created to explore how to change minds after the passage of the Proposition 8 anti-LGBT legislation in California.  Since 2008, over 1,200 volunteers working with the Leadership LAB have been having door to door conversations with people as they investigated ways to reduce transphobia and anti-LGBT prejudice.  They made note of what worked, and of what didn’t work.

The Leadership LAB’s study, after some initial unfortunate scientific fraud unrelated to their study, was eventually published in the journal Science.  The “persuasion model” of this study is based on the idea that listening and “relentless curiosity” are keys in persuading someone to change their mind.  The conversations are honest, open, and emotional.

Unlike Boghossian and others, these techniques have not (yet) been turned into a set of instructions.  Instead the Leadership LAB mentors those who are interested in persuading others, and in delivering effective messages that help change minds.  But Like Boghossian and Magnabosco, this method realizes that a binary change in belief may not be immediately possible and instead seeks to reduce hostility and opposition toward the LGBT community.  And the results, and follow up studies show that these changes in attitude and belief are persistent.

So what does this mean for atheists?

We shouldn’t think of these methods as “evangelism”.  They are not designed to “win people over to atheism”.  Instead we should think of these methods as a way of respectfully “treating” people for the malady of poorly supported beliefs.

Respect is important.  Every person automatically deserves an initial amount of respect, and further respect is earned (or lost) based on that person’s actions and words.  We should strive to treat individuals with the dignity and respect and compassion.  Compassion, openness, and a willingness to engage at an intimate, emotional level are also necessary in these methods of changing attitude and belief.

At the same time, beliefs, hypothesis, world views, religions, ideas and philosophies do NOT automatically deserve respect.  I think it is intellectually honest to treat all such thoughts with initial doubt in proportion to the premise.  Even when a hypothesis goes through the scientific rigor to become a well-supported theory, it is still a good idea to continue to treat it with skepticism as part of the process of continuing to support or eventually overturn that theory.

Some beliefs, and the people who hold them, are dangerous and must be countered.  This shows that we need more than one kind of engagement.

We need “Firebrand Atheists” who are willing to vocally challenge bad beliefs and those who support them.  We need people who stand up before a court and explain why religiously-based legislation is harmful, or anti-human rights.  We need people who call out religious leadership whenever they are being dishonest or hypocritical.  And we need those who stand up and speak for those who are unable to speak for themselves.

But we also need those who are willing to have one-on-one conversations with people who hold their beliefs due to magical thinking, who are, perhaps unknowingly, doing harm to others through actions and attitudes based on bad beliefs.  We need to engage these people, treat them with compassion, and move them closer toward a well supported worldview while realizing that immediate and dramatic change is probably not very likely.

And we need atheists who can do both of these things, we need atheists who are willing to work toward developing a whole toolbox of methods that allow us to engage others and help them develop better beliefs.

Religious exclusion of the non-religious

great_seal_of_the_united_states_obverse-svgThe original motto of the United States was, “E pluribus unum,”, which was adopted by Congress in 1782 and included on the Great Seal of the United States.

This motto is Latin, and it means, “Out of many, one”.  It is inclusive of all Americans, and it acknowledges that those people who make up the United States of America come from very diverse backgrounds.  It tells us all that we are all welcome here, if we wish to be Americans.

There is a different motto, adopted out of fear by Congress in 1956, and it says, “In God We Trust”.  This is our official motto.  And it was designed from the beginning to divide our country, to divide us from those who are deemed “right” or believing in God, from those who were “wrong” or non-believing.  It was designed to shut out those who didn’t believe, or those who believe in too many deities.  In practice it is used to shut out those who believe in the “wrong” deity.

I’m writing about this because history is repeating itself, right here in the California Central Valley, right here in Fresno.  And we witnessed it happening after the Orlando massacre, we see it in remembrance of the horrible 9/11 tragedy.

Some victims of these tragedies are ignored.  Some are forgotten.  They are the ones who held no belief in any god.  

As the leaders of the Faith In Community, Fresno, gathered hand in hand in support of the Orlando victims, those who do not require faith were left forgotten.  And those victims who died without belief were not mentioned.

Today, on the 15th anniversary of the fall of the World Trade Center, we are again reminded that approximately 20 percent of America, those who do not have a faith, are excluded from this discussion.  How many non-believers died in the 9/11 terrorist attack?  I do not know.  But I do know that it is statistically likely that several did.  If only 1 in 1000 people generally identify as atheist, then I am sure that at least 2 or 3 who died in 9/11 self-identified as atheist.  Many more were “nones” – non-believers who did not call themselves atheist.

The faithless are left over, they are left out.

The non-religious are used to being left out, we are so used to it that we do not even blink when organizations congregate for the “good of the community” and then intentionally exclude a section of that community.  Secular people too often shrug when this sort of high-school-level cliquishness is played out, and the “popular kids” work together to keep out the “undesirables” once again.

This needs to stop.

Organizations that leave out part of the community can not claim to speak for the community.  No matter how good their intentions may be.  We need to stop letting them get away with speaking for us all, when they are not interested in speaking for some.

Perhaps we should paraphrase the bible.  If you do not speak for the least of us, then you are not standing for a greater good.  You are only aggrandizing yourselves.