Letter to the Slime Pit

I’m calling this post a Letter to the Slime Pit – because it was a rather long comment I posted in the now non-existent original Periodic Table of Swearing blog post at Abbie Smith’s blog, ERV, addressed to the members of the Slime Pit who were starting to show signs of concern about tone, once it became clear that more people were coming out to speak up about the dogmatic tendencies of prominent members of newly formed Freethought Blogs network (henceforth, FTB).

So why am I writing a blog post for a comment I made?

Well, a number of people who read the comment asked me to turn it into a blog post in and of itself, perhaps because it might be useful as future reference – particularly for those new to the debate who might not be aware of what the Slime Pit actually is, or for those whose view of the Slime Pit has been (mis)informed by the FTB narrative. In the comment I also tried to explain the context behind some of the more outrageous hyperbole featured in the Slime Pit comments that has been seized upon by detractors as alleged evidence of misogyny and sexism, and further explained how those who were quick to condemn the Slime Pit on account of those allegations missed the point completely.

Understanding what I was getting at in the comment in question might require some background knowledge of the year long internet war that has been on-going since Elevatorgate occurred last year.

I’ll try to keep it concise.

Elevatorgate & Birth of the Slime Pit:

During Elevatorgate, pockets of discussion emerged in many corners of the atheist-skeptic blogosphere with people trying to determine how best to understand the events surrounding Rebecca Watson’s reported ordeal in the elevator, her treatment of Stef McGraw and others with dissenting views with regards to allegations of sexism in the atheist movement, Richard Dawkins’ sarcastic dismissal of the entire hullabaloo, and the gender politics within the movement in general. 

Almost all of the prolific bloggers who spoke up early on this particular topic took the side of Rebecca Watson. Collectively, and due to having a large audience, these bloggers were able to define the terms of the debate that was to ensue. As far as they were concerned, with respect to Elevatorgate, one was either going to be pro-Watson, or a misogynist. Following their initial commentary, these bloggers, together with their hordes of commenters, embarked on an aggressive campaign to demonise their detractors wherever they could be found – the ‘bigger’ the fish, the louder the screams of condemnation. Call-out culture reared its fangs and if anyone dared step out of line, that person was to be the subject of ridicule, denouncement and castigation spanning several articles and blogs. This left many too intimidated to openly voice their opinion if it was not in line with the approved creed at this juncture. Many seldom dared to post comments at the blogs of these prominent people for fear of being torn apart by the horde of Watson sympathizers that dwelled in their comments sections.

One of the few high profile bloggers who was openly and actively critical of Rebecca Watson and her supporters at the time was Abbie Smith, owner of a science-based blog called ERV.

ERV blog entries related to Elevatorgate attracted a number of people who felt equally aggrieved by the dogmatism and hypocrisy on display from the pro-Watson camp. After brief spats with people like PZ Myers and Ophelia Benson in the comments section of ERV’s earlier posts on the gender politics of the atheist community, several of the commenters remained and continued with their criticisms of the regular torrent of perceived absurdity emanating from the pro-Watson camp on a day to day basis. As expected, the pro-Watson camp were not happy with the manner in which they were regularly criticised by ERV and her commenters.

They were to soon find a highly effective way to poison the well.

Among the many commenters at ERV were some who occasionally used profane language to deride Rebecca Watson and her various supporters within the newly formed FTB (home to PZ Myers, Ophelia Benson, Greta Christina, etc). Their occasional use of profane language (sometimes what are considered by some to be gendered slurs) in their commentary  kept drawing the attention of various members of FTB who then used it as evidence of there being extensive misogyny in the wider atheist ‘movement’. (We shall later see how the use of such language was deliberate in as far as one particular  commenter – viewed by many as the worst offender of the lot – was concerned) .

The existence of gendered slurs accompanying a few comments in various ERV posts discussing FTB provided the FTB mob the moral justification they needed in order to validate their otherwise dogmatic and irrational stances on gender politics. Of course, they made sure to always ignore the actual arguments and valid criticisms of their dogmatic behaviour that accompanied those rare slurs, and concentrated on highlighting the profanity instead. Over time, this strategy had the effect of rendering all commentary from ERV regulars not worth considering in the minds of many who were new to the discussion, because, after all, such commentary critical of FTB would be coming from misogynists, as they had been reliably misinformed.

poisoning the well

Anyone who voiced any opposition to FTB’s dogmatism and hypocrisy would now risk being branded a misogynist like the ones that were alleged to occupy ERV, which the FTB horde had now christened the Slime Pit.

The Slime Pitters, of course, tended not to care about such labels and continued with their commentary on FTB dogmatism and hypocrisy without restraint.  For all their complaints about language, there were plenty of equally offensive gendered slurs and hyperbolic allusions to violence to be found in the comment sections of FTB blogs like Pharyngula. It required almost no effort to bring these double standards to light.

And so it went on for many months, with the grievance industry that is FTB churning out drama after drama about everything that is supposedly wrong with the atheist-skeptic community, with members of the Slime Pit having a field day in pointing out the irony of such complaints by bringing to light numerous instances of the FTB mob remorselessly engaged in precisely the same behaviour they vehemently chastised in others.

The Slime Pit was now  the de facto online source for documented instances of FTB’s inconsistencies, hypocrisy and dogmatism. And the fact is that there is a lot of insightful, interesting and thought provoking debate to be found there, and if at all there is any profanity, it is actually rare. But it is these rare cases that tend to stand out and it is those that are pounced on by people who wish to find an excuse not to engage with the commenters at the Slime Pit, despite there being thousands of comments worth of calm, nuanced and reasoned discourse to consider.

The Attack on DJ Grothe: 

Things took an interesting turn when FTB turned their attention to DJ Grothe, JREF and TAM in May of this year. Examples here, here, here, here and here. DJ Grothe is the current president of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). He was already their target as early as January, but now with The Amazing Meeting (TAM) just round the corner, there was a renewed interest in crucifying him. Grothe was repeatedly attacked for his supposed failure to take appropriate and sufficient steps to properly assuage the fears of harassment-weary women in the skeptic ‘community’ ahead of TAM that was soon to take place.

The attacks on Grothe introduced a new level of absurdity to the debate on gender politics within the atheist-skeptic community, and many who were previously silent (on this issue) within the ‘movement’ such as Paula Kirby, the crew of the Ask an Atheist radio show, Thunderf00t (who had only recently joined FTB), and many others, felt compelled to speak up more openly. The blogosphere outside of the FTB enclosure was exploding with criticism of FTB’s dogmatic feminism, as was YouTube and other forums.  All of a sudden, it became clear to casual on-lookers that those actively opposed to FTB dogmatism were not just the alleged fringe elements at ERV, but that this opposition was actually widespread and building. Some of these newly vocal people were familiar with the Slime Pit, but chose to distance themselves from it for fear of inviting the label of misogynist that the FTB horde were handing out to anyone that challenged their narrative. Others, while just as equally critical of FTB as the Slime Pitters, joined FTB in their castigation of the Slime Pit for their alleged misogyny.

This misconception created a problem for a significant portion of the regular commenters at ERV, some of whom were  also concerned about the tone of the comments coming from their profanity-using co-commenters, and how they thought this reflected badly on all of them – even those whose comments tended to be calm and non-offensive. These ‘diplomats’, as I shall call them, were of the view that since recent events (the attacks on DJ Grothe and the attempted undermining of TAM) had brought many to begin to have doubts about FTB, it would be a good time to try to repair the image of people who comment at ERV so that they would not be seen as the misogynists they’ve been labelled as, by FTB, for simply disagreeing with them. In the final days of the original Period Table of Swearing thread this matter was hotly debated. Several new ‘members’ of the Slime Pit had also only recently de-lurked (i.e. began to post comments after months of simply lurking about and reading comments but not commenting for fear of being associated with the much maligned Slime Pit. I myself was a lurker until last September) and joined others in calling for a change of tone because they were starting to gain ‘allies’. Those that were well known for using highly obscene language were asked to tone their profanity down.


Franc Hoggle was considered by some among this lot to be the worst offender in this regard, and was blamed for much of the condemnation that the Slime Pit was receiving, mainly for crossing the line when it came to language. The image above highlights Hoggle’s most controversial comment yet – a comment, that would be used by FTB to smear all of the regular commenters at ERV as those that condone violence against women. To anyone with sense, the comment was intended as hyperbole.  As you will see in my comment that I’m now posting below, Hoggle did it for a very deliberate reason.

The Move:

There was an aggressive campaign by certain members of FTB to pressure National Geographic, the organisation that hosts the ERV blog, to take action against Abbie Smith for allowing comments like Hoggle’s, above, to be freely made (she tended not to censor comments in the interest of open and free debate). Wishing to relieve her hosts of the pressure they were being subjected to, she decided that it would be better for the commentary be moved to a different place. The Slime Pit thus found a new home  – where they continue to shed light on the regular torrent of perceived absurdity emanating from FTB, on a daily basis, to this day.

Oh, and its now called the Slyme Pit.

Now on to the comment in question…



Now that the tide seems to be shifting – that is, now that there is a noticeable surge in open criticism of FTB antics from more ‘respected’ skeptics like Paula Kirby, Jeremy Stangroom, Russel Blackford, Jean Kasez, Justin Griffith, Thunderf00t, some of the guys at Ask an Atheist, etc, the voices within the Slimepit openly advocating restraint in the choice of words has correspondingly increased. I guess this is because of the tendency of an increasing number of these FTB critics who have varying degrees of clout in the wider community being reluctant to associate themselves with the Slimepit because of that same colourful language in use by the mostly pseudonymous commenters here.

This is understandable.

If you are operating online as a public figure (and not as a pseudonym), there is a lot at stake in how you present yourself on the internet, and who you are seen to associate with. These associations can have real world effects in terms of damage to personal reputation resulting to job losses, for example, or jeopardized careers. People like these generally cannot afford to be cavalier about who they are associated with on the internet. The Slimepit has received far too much bad press (most of it unjustified) for the average public skeptic to want to touch with a ten foot pole. There are exceptions to this, of course. My point is that there are many who are now speaking up who will be reluctant to defend the Slimepit, even when they agree 100% will all the criticisms of FTB presented here. But in saying this I guess I’m repeating what I already said a few pages ago, so pardon the redundancy.

The concern seems to be that now that the tide is shifting towards ‘our’ side, the last thing we can afford to do is ‘give the other side ammo’ by way of gendered slurs and other insults that can be pointed to by them as ‘proof’ of misogyny and hate in the Slime Pit that they are purportedly so valiantly at war against.

Some want the more abrasive and obscene ones among us to rein it in so that we can present to the world the best face possible, so that they might actually consider, for once, the many valid criticisms of FTB dogmatism that have been discussed extensively in the Slimepit. Now more than ever, there seems to be a chance for the Slimepit to vindicate itself after having been much maligned thanks to FTB propaganda that says we all have threatened to actually kick women in the groin, or that we all endorse such plans of action. It therefore might seem counter-productive for some members of the Slimepit to carry on with their verbal assaults at this time – when people are actually open to hearing what we have to say. In carrying on as they do, our more abrasive contemporaries tar the rest of us ‘diplomatic’ ones who have painstakingly avoided the use of offensive language while articulating our legitimate grievances about FTB dogmatism. We desperately want to show that we are better than FTB in handling discourse over sensitive issues. We actually ARE better, but seem to have trouble convincing the wider community of this because of the actions of a few individuals who seem intent on stirring as much trouble as possible with little regard for how we will all be perceived as a result.

The desired outcome for we the ‘diplomats’ within the Slimepit is for the fence-sitters to be exposed to the rational arguments that demonstrate the double standards and hypocrisy at play from the FTB-Skepchick brigade, win them over to our side, thereby restoring sanity, and above all, rationality, in the atheist-skeptic movement. As far as we’re concerned, vulgar language alienates those who might share our views, and further goes to empower FTB who will now use that against us.

Further, we are horrified at the prospect of medium-to-high-profile skeptics we respect, who actually share our views on FTB bullying, saying they want to have nothing to do with us by virtue of our posting in ERV. For this reason, we want some of the commenters to watch their tongue from now on.

I am very sympathetic to the sentiments of this camp, and I must admit, the diplomatic approach has been my preferred one for dealing with all the FTB-Skepchick-related madness. For all intents and purposes, I am very much a diplomat too.

I do think we the diplomats are somewhat oblivious to reality, though, and somehow naïve. I’ll explain why in a bit. First, let me tell you what I think about Franc Hoggle.

Franc’s goals are actually identical to that of the diplomats. Like us, he wishes to see sanity restored to the atheist-skeptic movement – but his approach is not through directly trying to ‘convince’ fence-sitters that he is right, through argument. Most of his writings in his blogs or in the comments here, you will notice, are for him to primarily vent his frustrations with the community, rather than try to convince anybody to take his side. He doesn’t seem to care if you believe him or not – his main aim is to simply convey his contempt for what he, rightly or wrongly, considers to be nonsense and while doing so hopefully jolt the more complacent atheists who already agree with him into speaking up and doing something about the mess.

Going back in time a little bit – you might recall that Franc’s initial post on these matters at Greylining attracted much abuse from PZ Myers and his horde.


What is ironic is that at the bottom of this very first post he even says “As much as I love PZ Myers, his consistency leaves a lot to be desired.” This is a Franc Hoggle you probably might not recognize today – polite, and civil. Then read the comments from his dissenters below the article.

Franc catalogued all the ‘criticisms’ he had been receiving from that camp on his blog, and a quick perusal through the comments shows you that there is no point in ‘debating’ with ideologues, as debating is the last thing they have in mind:


At NO point were any of his criticisms in his various articles actually addressed. All that came from the other side was abuse, and empty moral grandstanding.

The question is, how does one deal with this? Continue to try to painstakingly explain your position? Or give them exactly what they’re dishing out? Many a commenter on what came to be known as the Slimepit opted for a mix of the two approaches, but often leaning towards the latter. Franc took it one notch higher, though. Because moral supremacists are fairly easy to undermine (since they almost always will trip over their own hypocrisy at some point), he deliberately chose to become their bogeyman by being as obscene towards them as he could possibly get – not for the lulz, not for the sake of being obscene, but to deliberately trip them up; or more accurately, to have them trip over their own hypocrisy. In order to do this he kept giving them ridiculous things to get outraged about – and these things were bait that they kept biting.

Believing that they possessed the moral high ground (due to Franc’s obscenities and incessant scathing criticisms on his blog), they became bolder in entertaining all manner of ludicrous grievances from hard core feminists among the horde. In attempting to address these increasingly bizarre grievances, FTB began to come as across more and more unrealistic, and above all, more dogmatic. With their lust for ‘misogynist’ blood now at fever pitch, they manufactured melodrama after melodrama in order to quench their now insatiable thirst for more dissenters to take down. Theirs is a grievance industry, as you know. They literally went after almost anyone for the flimsiest of reasons. They began patrolling people’s private Facebook conversations, reddit threads, etc.. looking for slip-ups. No place was too obscure for them to find you and use you as an example of everything that was wrong with the atheist community, and how they were there to save the day. All of a sudden TAM became the most dangerous event a woman might ever dare to attend, and DJ Grothe was a misogynist who blamed victims. What? Indeed. The FTB-Skepchick brigade elected themselves the Mutaween of the atheist community, and went on a wild rampage, leaving even their sympathizers scratching their heads in bewilderment.

I am going to contend here that it is these excesses that have since emanated from FTB that have done a lot to awaken and sway the fence-sitters towards ‘our’ direction, some of whom have started speaking out in recent months. And this was Franc Hoggle’s specific intent when he deliberately decided to up the ante in terms of tone and language. That was the whole point of the CK joke, and all the associated hyperbole before and since.

And it worked.

The more ‘outraged’ they got over Franc’s antics and blogged about it, the more the members of the Slimepit found things to criticize about FTB. Several examples of various FTB bloggers and their regular commenters doing precisely the same thing they criticized in others (even including gendered slurs and equally hyperbolic allusions to violence) were amazingly easy to find, and this became the subject of much derision, ridicule and humour on the various ERV Slimepit threads. (The Slimepit essentially became, and still remains, THE forum where these endless acts of hypocrisy from FTB are specifically discussed on a day-to-day basis).

However, now that more and more ‘respectable’ skeptics are finally speaking up and are on board, Franc Hoggle et al are seen as liabilities by the diplomats (old and newly converted). But then these skeptics, remember, are now speaking out because of the recent excesses from the FTB-Skepchick gang (e.g conference harassment hysteria and crucifixion of DJ Grothe), which are largely the result of the deliberate prodding over the months by people like Franc and others here in the Slimepit who cared little for civility and were not shy to use language intended to shock and offend. They made the FTB horde paranoid – and look at what happened. The horde tripped over themselves and fell hard. All indications are that a slow implosion of FTB is in progress. They have lost huge amounts of credibility – and have done so through their OWN actions. With each new manufactured controversy they continue to burn more and more bridges, and pretty soon they’re going to find that they are completely isolated from the mainstream movement (if they aren’t already).

What puzzles me, I must confess, is that I thought it was apparent to all within the Slimepit watching this spectacle that this was precisely what Franc Hoggle was going for right from the start. He made no secret of his plans on his blog. And it has worked. I even warned Ophelia last year that this was Franc’s actual intention, and advised her to ignore his provocations, in vain. Franc Hoggle was too juicy a target to ignore. He was the bogeyman on a silver plate, after all, and his online atrocities simply had to be milked for all they were worth politically. And Ophelia still milks it, even today. Every other day she reminds us that someone wants to kick her in the groin, and that she is in danger, and won’t be safe at conferences, etc. It does not occur to her that it was a trap. She was, and still is, behaving in precisely the way Franc wants her to.

If I’m to blame Franc for anything at all with regard to the CK incident in particular, it is that he orchestrated it at other people’s expense – because now everywhere we go we have to explain to people that just because we post at ERV it doesn’t mean we want to kick women in the groin. He can sometimes be callous, but he’s a world-class provocateur none-the-less – who accomplished precisely what he set out to do, regardless of who got burnt in the process.

Fortunately, I’m not one who cares so much what other people think of me – so being associated with Franc’s (or anyone else’s) occasional obscenities in the Slimepit is not something that bothers me. My attitude is “I didn’t say those words – but if you think I said those words, well then that’s your problem, thank you. I really don’t care. My position on FTB is as follows…” Further, even as I participate in these threads I really do not imagine myself as being part of a collective whose image, cause, or reputation I feel the need to defend. We all speak for ourselves as individual adults, and I will not impose on anyone to alter their language, tone or prose on my behalf on these threads or on any other forum. You own your words. At best, simply respect the wishes of the person whose blog you’re infesting, for that person’s sake.

I fully appreciate that there are several among us who view this thread as a united front, and wish to see it reflect their own values with respect to tone as well as strategy. In my mind, however, this veers dangerously close to what’s going on at the other side. Before you know it you’re going to start policing each other. Be careful. Collectivism contains within it the seeds of religion.

If you’re that concerned about your image and how some of the comments here reflect on your credibility, my advice would be for you to leave the Slimepit and continue your commentary elsewhere, rather than to attempt to control what people say here. I don’t think it can end well, no matter how well-intentioned.

As far as BAD WERDZ go, in my opinion, it is the verbally abrasive faction within the Slimepit (i.e. those that present arguments but are also quite happy to invoke colourful language to convey their sentiments, usually out of retaliation – and in the case of Hoggle, intentionally to trip them up) that has done the bulk of the work of getting FTB worked up to the point of irredeemably undermining itself, resulting in a climate where more and more people are now open to hearing ‘our side’. And they have been at it for much longer, and more persistently, than we the strictly diplomatic faction of the Slimepit. In my opinion it is the former, more than the latter, that have kept FTB on their toes for the better part of the last one year. It is indeed odd that some among this lot are now succumbing to pressure to change their approach and tone. It’s their choice anyway, so it’s up to them how they wish to proceed henceforth – not that I think their proposed new approach will succeed.

I personally don’t think that this prolonged skirmish will be won by trying to advance cogent arguments for fence-sitters to consider, and playing nice. It’s going to be won by letting FTB continue to speak for itself, and letting them marginalize themselves in the process. I think they’re doing wonderfully so far.

To be clear, I’m not saying that cogent arguments are useless per se; I’m just saying that in the grand scheme of things, those cogent arguments are little more than decoration. Remember – you are dealing with ideologues here.


People are best convinced by reasons they themselves discover.” ~ Benjamin Franklin

UPDATE – Ophelia Benson responds:

James - Fuck you

Atheism, Theism & Ethics

[Originally published in Freethought Kampala]

“To be incapable of proof by reasoning is common to all first principles; to the first premises of our knowledge, as well as to those of our conduct. But the former, being matters of fact, may be the subject of a direct appeal to the faculties which judge of fact- namely, our senses, and our internal consciousness. Can an appeal be made to the same faculties on questions of practical ends? Or by what other faculty is cognisance taken of them?”

From: Chapter 4, Utilitarianism, by John Stuart Mill


When an atheist is debating with a theist on the issue of morality, he will, at some point, criticize whatever concept of god the theist happens to be defending.

Let’s say this theist is a Christian. As you might expect, questions will be asked about one atrocity or another in the Old Testament, the evil nature of the Christian god, the concept of hell, or maybe the very nature of existence of evil in the world. For reasons such as these the Christian god, the atheist will argue, cannot be the basis for morality. The theist, in response, might try to offer an apologetic defense for those atrocities. He will probably also invoke Alvin Plantinga’s Free Will Defense for the problem of evil to show that the existence of evil is consistent with the Christian god.

Christian apologist might turn the tables round at this point, and  challenge the atheist to account for the standard of morality by which he is judging the Christian god. If this god is evil, by what standard has it been established that is he evil?  And why should that standard be accepted as the default?

The atheist might then appeal to societal consensus, or to some utilitarian approach to determining good and evil and judge the Christian god by that. Of course, morality based on societal consensus or utilitarianism are fraught with serious problems, and if pressed hard enough, counter examples can be brought to bear that can undermine their use as moral standards.


For example, if, as per Utilitarianism, the atheist says good is what enhances wellbeing for the greatest number of individuals while minimizing harm, he then has the task of explaining to the theist what well-being is.

Well-being is a term that is impossible to determine outside the scope of every individual’s subjective personal experiences. For this reason it can differ from person to person in many areas and in many ways, rendering well-being an unreliable standard for deriving an objective, universal ethical principle by which to judge actions of people (or gods for that matter).

Aggregating these subjective views into a consensus still does not make the principle objective or universally applicable – it just makes it a subjective majority opinion.

Moral Axioms:

An axiom is a “self-evident principle or one that is accepted as true without proof as the basis for argument.”

Suppose the atheist instead attempts to derive an objective standard for morality by appealing to a set of moral axioms as a standard by which to measure the morality of an action. Indeed, it is possible to determine that an action is objectively wrong, when measured against a specific moral axiom. But then all the theist has to do at this point to challenge this is to ask why we should accept the moral axiom the atheist is proposing. If the atheist says the axiom should be accepted because it is self evident, the theist just has to say it may not be self evident to all – and several counter examples exist that can be brought up to demonstrate that this is the case.

For example, atheists usually reject the theistic claim that ‘God’ is self-evident, or that belief in ‘God’ is properly basic. But If atheists reject these claims, then on what grounds, without resorting to special pleading, can they make a case for why the axioms they propose as the basis for morality are self-evident while the existence of ‘God’ is not?

The atheist moral realist thus seems stuck.

Theistic Morality:

This is not to say that a theistic account of ethics fares any better. It does not. It still ends up reducing morality to the subjective whims of whichever deity one subscribes to, as shown by Euthyphro’s Dilemma:

Is something good because God says it is good, or does God say it is good because it is good?

A Christian might counter this by asserting that the objectivity of morality rests not on the whims of ‘God’, but on his essential nature. But this just moves the problem one step back without resolving it:

    • If God’s essential nature is good, because it is good, it implies that the objective standard for what is good does not rest in God’s essential nature, but in good itself, or some other external standard of ‘good’.

    • If on the other hand, God’s essential nature is good because good is whatever God’s essential nature is, then ‘good’ is subjective rather than objective. This is because if God’s essential nature was such that he considered rape to be a ‘good’, and it was true that objective moral values are grounded in ‘God’, then rape would be objectively morally good.

    • It also does not follow that just because an entity has an essential nature, that concepts derived from it, or dependant upon it, are objective. As a human being, my genetic make-up imbues me with predispositions towards all kinds of feelings, impulses, likes and dislikes – this is my nature. But this does not mean that the moral impulses that arise from my genetically determined predispositions represent intrinsic truths about reality. No. They simply represent my subjective feelings on an issue. Therefore, even if it were true that ‘God’ exists, and has a nature, and that nature was synonymous with ‘goodness’ – any moral values derived from ‘God’ would still be subjective. So even if it could be established that objective moral values do exist, they could not possibly be dependant upon ‘God’.

Some have pointed out that – ‘God’ or no ‘God’ – the notion objective moral values is in fact oxymoronic, or contradictory – because for a thing to be valued (an object – real or abstract), there has to be a thing valuing it (the subject).

Any moral “value”, therefore, would necessarily have to be subjective.

Basing Morality on ‘God’:

Apart from it being subjective, basing universal moral principles (i.e. applicable to all people under all circumstances) on the wishes or dictates of ‘God’ has other devastating problems.

First of all, not everyone believes that ‘God’ exists.


Also, among those that believe, people have different ideas about what constitutes ‘God’ – to some, theirs is a deity high in the heavens, interested in overseeing the lives of the creatures he created. To others, ‘God’ is simply nature – not a being.

Then there are those who do not accept there is one ‘God’, but that there are many.


Hindu gods


Egyptian gods 

Let’s be charitable and even suppose everyone believes in a single god – does this improve the situation? Not really, because whose revelation of this god counts as the authoritative one? The Islamic revelation? The Catholic revelation? The Mormon revelation?


“one man’s god is another man’s false god”

And lets not forget that each revelation has thousands of different interpretations. So while they may claim to believe in the same god, their interpretation of what they think this god has revealed to them differs from denomination to denomination, sect to sect, and believer to believer. Some of these differences are subtle, others are huge.

So for these and others reasons it therefore is problematic to develop universal moral principles on the basis of what some people think ‘God’ wants. We have centuries of religious war to remind us of the problems associated with such a venture.

Of values, desires, preferences:

Science helps us understand why we tend to have certain desires, and why we tend to find certain things (or behaviour by others) more desirable, or preferable, than others.

While the existence of these desires/preferences might be objective facts about ourselves, the desires and preferences themselves are subjective – often differing from individual to individual, and from culture to culture. As such, all axioms (basic principles) upon which both the theist and atheist ‘ground’ their perspectives about morality will always end up being subjective.

It is for this reason that I am an moral error theorist. I believe that moral claims are nothing more than expressions of the subjective preferences of those that claim them.

Care needed when debating ethics:

Because such difficulties exist, I think it is important that those of us who are atheists wanting to talk about ethics to tread slowly and carefully before making moral pronouncements on a whole range of issues.

Sadly, many of us do not, and so sometimes end up sounding just as dogmatic as the religious believers we criticize, when defending our moral positions. Our arguments for morality often sound like arguments for ‘God’, a point Luke Muehlhauser of Common Sense Atheism captures very well in his post Many Atheists are Hypocrites about Morality. He writes:

But let’s get back to this question of how the atheist can justify his belief in objective moral facts.

Many atheists seem to think moral realism is obvious, and easy to prove. I disagree.

Consider the claim we moral realists are making. We generally claim there are invisible properties in the world not detectable by our usual tools of science, properties of an entirely different sort than the usual “is” facts of science. These are mysterious “ought” facts, and there is great disagreement about what they are or how we know them.

Now that is a strong claim. An extraordinary claim, we might say. And extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, right?

So what is the atheist’s extraordinary evidence for this claim? Usually, it’s something like this:

  • “I experience a world of moral facts. I feel very strongly that rape is objectively wrong, and charity is objectively right.”
  • “Almost everybody believes in moral facts. It’s just obvious. Until you can prove there aren’t any, I’m justified in believing what people have always believed: that some things are really right or wrong.”

Do those arguments look familiar? They should. They are the exact same arguments atheists reject when they are given for the existence of God.

Indeed Luke is right.

On the matter of OUGHTS:

In, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), philosopher David Hume wrote:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not.

This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

The Is-Ought problem has plagued the mind of many a philosopher through the centuries, with seemingly no credible resolution.

Moral prescriptions (oughts) people tend to come up with are all conditional on desires and preferences – which are, by definition, subjective. For example:

  • If I want to others to survive – I OUGHT TO feed them
  • If I want to have friends – I OUGHT TO treat people they way they’d like to be treated by others.
  • If I want to abide by what ‘God’ says – I OUGHT to follow the Ten Commandments

But what happens if one asks WHY one ought to want others to survive, have friends or abide by what ‘God’ says? Any answer given will be subject to its own WHY as well. The “WHY” regress will continue until a point is reached beyond which the moral realist cannot go – a point for which there exists no rational justification. That point being…

Intuitions. Feelings. Instinct.

…which seems, to me, about as subjective as you can possibly get.


This viewpoint raises many interesting questions.

For example, if it is true as I allege – that morality is subjective – then can any coherent moral framework for society be constructed? And how would such a framework be binding? How is it that we seem to be getting along?

I know ethics is a highly complex subject, but  I find it to be of great interest. I intend to pursue it further in follow up posts and hope to learn more in the process – especially in exploring the questions that my viewpoint raises.

The Atheist-Skeptic Movement and Minorities

[Originally published in Freethought Kampala]

The atheist-skeptic community currently seems extremely preoccupied with having more racial minorities participate in their events and activities.

I’m not sure if their interest in having more minorities is primarily because they feel people from minority groups might have something useful or interesting to say. To me, it seems more because some people think not having enough racial minorities somehow makes atheists look like racists. I think this is that whole “white-heterosexual-male-privilege” conspiracy theory in full effect – fuelled by a large dose of white guilt.

In the essay “The age of white guilt: and the disappearance of the black individual” – Shelby Steele – award-winning African-American author, columnist, documentary film maker, and research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University (specialising in the study of race relations, multiculturalism and affirmative action), writes:

“What is white guilt? It is not a personal sense of remorse over past wrongs. White guilt is literally a vacuum of moral authority in matters of race, equality, and opportunity that comes from the association of mere white skin with America’s historical racism. It is the stigmatization of whites and, more importantly, American institutions with the sin of racism. Under this stigma white individuals and American institutions must perpetually prove a negative–that they are not racist–to gain enough authority to function in matters of race, equality, and opportunity. If they fail to prove the negative, they will be seen as racists. Political correctness, diversity policies, and multiculturalism are forms of deference that give whites and institutions a way to prove the negative and win reprieve from the racist stigma.

Institutions especially must be proactive in all this. They must engineer a demonstrable racial innocence to garner enough authority for simple legitimacy in the American democracy. No university today, private or public, could admit students by academic merit alone if that meant no black or brown faces on campus. Such a university would be seen as racist and shunned accordingly. White guilt has made social engineering for black and brown representation a condition of legitimacy…”

So in order to prove to themselves that they are not racists, the largely white-populated atheist-skeptic community seem to want to go out of their way to find minorities to join the fold. But just how do they plan to do this? No one goes into any details. What you do hear a lot of, though, is how the atheist-skeptic community needs to be more ‘welcoming’ of people of other races.

More welcoming? But how?

Do they plan to give out doughnuts to every black person who attends an atheist or skeptic conference, in order to encourage more to show up? Will every black person in attendance be assigned an attractive usher to show him around? Will there be a hip-hop music session between talks to make sure we don’t get bored during all the science presentations? Will they offer us special treatment, like seats on the front row? Will they tip toe around us at conferences and mince their words to ensure they don’t say anything that might have the slightest chance of ‘offending’ us? Will they not criticize us openly and ruthlessly (in the true spirit of skepticism) if we say something erroneous? Just what do they have in mind?

No one goes into any details.

As a black skeptic from Africa, its hard not to feel insulted if this was indeed their primary motivation. Its almost as if they want racial minorities just so they can feel better about themselves by assuaging their self-inflicted guilt.

Personally speaking, if I heard of an atheist-skeptic conference about to take place, and ALL the speakers were white, and ALL the attendees were also white, if I had the means to, I’d still want to attend because I want to hear interesting IDEAS.

Yes, interesting ideas. Not cookies, not ushers, not hip-hop, not special treatment – but interesting ideas. And why might that be? Perhaps its because I have a brain? Probably.

An African-American commenter at Abbie Smith’s blog, ERV, shares my view and drives the point home beautifully. He made this comment on a thread that was discussing Elevatorgate:

[…] even before this flareup got going I noticed bloggers consistently talking about bringing in more minorities and women. Trying to give advise on what the skeptic/atheist community ought to do to fix this problem.

So, as a racial minority, let me tell it to you straight.

The reason you don’t see as many minorities and women at these meetings and lectures isn’t because white, heterosexual men, high on their privilege, are rampant with subconscious racists and sexist mindsets. Heck, atheists in this country tend to be the most liberal people and socially progressive people on the planet. The main reason why we’re not there is because racial minorities and women in the western world statistically tend to be more religious then white men.

So all of you freedom fighter can relax all ready and stop getting bothered on behalf of me. Now, we can have fun trying to figure out why we’re more religious, but I promise you it’s not because the skeptic community is seen as too prejudiced to get involved in.

To be honest I’m kind of insulted that these bloggers think that if they are nicer to me that I’ll have more reason to be a skeptic/atheist. I’m atheist because there is no evidence for god/s; it is entirely an intellectual position on my part, not because I’m looking for a place to be treated like a delicate piece of porcelain. Every other atheist on the planet can be an egocentric jerk for all I care, I still would be an atheist because their still wouldn’t be any evidence for god/s.

In fact I think this whole political litmus test some are trying to make for atheist/skeptics is just plain stupid, and at least for me, a real reason why I might consider not showing up these sort of conferences.

I came to skepticism because I saw demonstrable value in it. If white atheist-skeptics want to feel guilt over anything, let it not be the fact that they are white – but the fact that those they are allowing to speak on their behalf assume that being ‘welcoming’ to us will somehow get us interested in skepticism. I couldn’t think of a more patronizing attitude than that!

Are you a white atheist-skeptic? Please don’t feel sorry for me, just because I am a black African. Do not. You owe me nothing.

Judge me not by the colour of my skin, or my race, but on the ideas I have to offer. And if those ideas are not particularly interesting or worth considering, do not feel obliged to pay attention to them. You owe me nothing. The onus is on me to generate ideas that are sufficiently compelling in order to garner the interest of others.

If going out of your way to be nice to people like me is how you plan on getting people interested in skepticism – you’ll be infiltrated by half-wits who are simply looking for a good time. They’ll water down everything and bring the movement down. You do not want that.

So let’s keep politics and political correctness out of skepticism. Let the facts speak for themselves, because to have a viable ‘movement’ what you want is people who are drawn in by the demonstrable value of applying skepticism in their lives – not people who got interested because you were ‘nice’.

Consider this: what if tomorrow this person meets a ‘nicer’ Christian missionary, Scientologist, or homeopath? If nice-ness is the point of entry then this person will susceptible to the very things skeptics are trying to discourage him/her from. Exploiting people’s emotions to get them interested in something is what religion and other forms of quackery does. As skeptics, what we want to do is stimulate people’s thinking and let them see for themselves how much good comes out of applying skepticism, right? So let’s do that.

If we are unable to effectively communicate the demonstrable value of skepticism to others in the first place, then I have to wonder what the point of having a skeptical movement is.

Elevatorgate – Part 2 – The Failure of Skepticism

[Originally published in Freethought Kampala]

Skepticism generally refers to:

…any questioning attitude of knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs stated as facts, or doubt regarding claims that are taken for granted elsewhere.

On one hand, I can see great value in people of a skeptical bent meeting, and exchanging ideas. I can see the benefit in skeptical people getting together to discuss ways in which they might get the wider public interested in applying skepticism in their daily lives. In a way, that’s kind of the reason Freethought Kampala came into existence in the first place. I am also interested in meeting and interacting with skeptics everywhere. There is a lot to learn about this world, and a lot of information to share. Meeting people with the same passion for knowledge is, without a doubt, a great thing.

But what happens when skepticism becomes more than a way of thinking, such as a movement in and of itself?

crowd 1Movements are essentially political entities – and thus a skeptical “movement” is very much prone to abandoning the very skepticism it claims to uphold in favour of what, at the time, may seem politically expedient or politically correct.

Skepticism advocates an approach to thinking – not conclusions. On the other hand, political ideas advanced by movements are premised on what are already conclusions. That is why Elevatorgate, for example, is the scandal that it has become. It is, at its core, a purely ideological problem.

(To see and understand what exactly happened, see my previous post: Elevatorgate)

You would think that being skeptics, whatever disagreements arising from how the events surrounding and following from Elevatorgate were to be interpreted would be done calmly, rationally, and above all, skeptically.

But this is not what happened at all.

My concern is not so much about whether someone takes one view or another with regards to Elevatorgate. Indeed, even among the members of Freethought Kampala, there are different opinions on various aspects of the matter. My concern is about how the matter has been handled, the poor quality of arguments that have been advanced, the astounding amounts of hypocrisy on display, and above all the intolerant attitude towards viewpoints that don’t tow the radical gender feminist line – all this, among people that call themselves skeptics.

In this post I’d like to go into detail about some of the things that I found mind-boggling with regards to this fiasco – the ways in which I think skeptics decidedly jettisoned their skepticism, to embrace dogma instead.

Continue reading


[Originally published in Freethought Kampala] Rebecca_watson

Elevatorgate is the unprecedented INTERNET WAR that erupted after Rebecca Watson (above) posted a video in which she discussed an ordeal she experienced in an elevator while attending the World Atheist Convention which took place in Dublin, Ireland, from June 3rd to June 5th, 2011.

During the months of July and August 2011, the atheist-skeptic blogosphere was ablaze with accusations, counter-accusations, verbal fights, moral declarations and insults as hundreds of bloggers and millions thousands of their readers tried to determine whose assessment of the events narrated by Watson best represented the facts at hand.

What also came under much discussion, and perhaps the crux of Elevatorgate, was Watson’s conduct after posting the initial video, particularly her treatment of a female student called Stef McGraw – and the manner in which dissenting opinions were dismissed as being products of misogyny and sexism.

Continue reading

Rational Ugandan – the blog

My name is James Onen, co-founding member of Freethought Kampala

I created this blog because I want to express certain views I have with regards to atheism, skepticism, freethought, rationality – not from an advocacy view point (as I do on the Freethought Kampala blog), but from the perspective a person observing what has come to be known as the online atheist-skeptic community.

Recent events have indicated to me that atheists do in fact have their fair share of dogmas. As Luke Muehlhauser of Common Sense Atheism duly observed in his article “Atheism and Dogmatism” on August 1, 2010:

Denying the gods does not allow one to escape rampant human bias. Theism is merely one symptom of our mostly non-rational and irrational primate brains – there are many other symptoms that atheists rarely escape. We, too, are often dogmatic. We, too, abandon reason and evidence to support opinions that just “feel right” to us.

he continued:

Attack an atheist’s dogma – especially about a complicated subject like morality and feminism – and count the number of respondents who show a serious interest in arguments and evidence over emotion and dogma-defending.

Freethought Kampala has a very specific focus, and I am not keen to saddle it with discussions of the internal politics of the online atheist community.

This blog will focus on discussions of what I think are some of the dogmas that plague the minds of many atheists.