Carol Tavris on the Pain of Dissonance

If storytelling can be a force for evil, social psychologist Carol Tavris explains that it’s not just stories we tell others, but the ones we tell ourselves. Almost as uncomfortable as hunger itself is dissonance, that feeling when ideas contradict things we believe, or need, to be true.

All of us are susceptible to bias, yes, even skeptics. Tavris points out that skeptics in fact are very prone to “the bias that we are unbiased,” the idea that if someone doesn’t agree with our position on something, which of course we arrived at through 100% pure critical thinking, must mean that they are biased.

What hit home for me was the kind of bias that occurs once we’ve made some kind of decision with ethical or moral baggage. Tavris’s example was a student who needed to cheat in order to get a good grade in class. The student who decides not to cheat begins by reducing dissonance by reinforcing the idea to themselves that cheating is immoral and hurts everyone in the class. That snowballs over time into a zealous anti-cheating position, that it’s morally abysmal.

On the other side, the student who does cheat justifies it by telling themselves that it’s no big deal, and cheating isn’t the end of the world. But the cognitive practice, using all this brain power to reduce the dissonance of having cheated, causes this person to harden this belief to the point that cheating is a total non-issue, and justified in myriad circumstances.

In other words, in the act of reducing that uncomfortable dissonance, we get better at it. Practice makes perfect. As Tavris put it, we take “the path to the bottom where certainty lies.”

Tavris raised the example of those extreme gun enthusiasts who have convinced themselves and each other that the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax to justify the confiscation of all firearms. That belief reduces the dissonance they feel between their love of guns and the horror of those gun murders. Trying to convince them otherwise only pushes them further down the path to certainty.

But just as we need to eat to satisfy hunger, we can’t reasonably live in the world constantly writhing under the stress of dissonance. We have to embrace certainty on most of the aspects of our day to day lives, like being certain that brushing our teeth is a good idea.

The takeaway is to remember to check our own biases, to know that we are not failures or traitors to ourselves if we admit error or the truth of an opposing argument. If anything, we’d be better for it. But we have to power through the dissonance. No pain, no gain.


Maria Konnikova on Stories as a Force for Evil

I used to make my living as a stage actor, and I was lucky enough to do almost nothing but Shakespeare for about five years. To explain what I thought was so important about Shakespeare and theatre, I often cite a scene in Al Pacino’s documentary Looking for Richard, in which a panhandler on the street tells Pacino, “Shakespeare teaches us how to feel.” So the stories I helped to tell as an actor could teach people how to feel. I loved that.

New Yorker writer Maria Konnikova reminds us this morning that as valuable as storytelling is, as intrinsic to the human experience it is, and as much as it does to give us new insights and deeper empathy, “In the wrong hands, stories can be a force for evil.” Her topic is con artists. “Con artists are actors, they are storytellers.”

You can imagine that this was quite an affecting line of thought for me. The core of Konnikova’s message is that humans are not the creatures of fact we think we are. Con artists are actors of the criminal element, and they succeed by weaving a story in which the victim of the con is the good guy, and to not follow through with what the con artist, posing as a victim, needs, is to betray the idea of the kind of people we think we are and want to be. If we default to skepticism, if we show skepticism, when someone seems to be in need, we’re violating the story.

Of course this negative power of storytelling is not just applicable to con men, but to almost all areas of our lives. Konnikova cited examples such as the law, where cases are won by the best story told. Politicians tell stories of varying degrees of truthfulness, and then another layer is added when journalists tell stories about the stories they’re being told.

Want she wants us to take away is that the more you want to believe a story, the more you have to rely on the trust-but-verify dictum.

Or, as she says she sometimes feels compelled to shout, “Humanity sucks, trust no one!” I kind of glommed on to that one.

Oh hey! You can hear Konnikova talk more about this subject on CFI’s podcast Point of Inquiry.

Born Thinking Magically: James Alcock on Confusing Labels for Knowledge

If you’ve been around the secular community for any length of time, you’ve probably heard the cliché that goes, “we are all born atheist.” I bristle at it, because it’s not as though we come into the world affirmatively rejecting the supernatural beings hypothesis. It’s kind of like saying we’re born undecided voters.

James Alcock is our first CSICon speaker, and he’s talking about how human beings make associations between things that actually have no relationship. He began with circular explanations for things that actually give us no information, as when one asks, “why does the apple fall from the tree,” and the answer is, “because of gravity.” How do we know gravity is operating? Because the apple fell, silly.

“We confuse labels for knowledge,” says Alcock. No real information comes out of that.

It applies to things like the association of prayer with events in the real world: one prays to get over an illness, one gets over the illness, and it’s falsely assumed that prayer works.

But here’s the thing. We’re wired for this. Alcock explains that we have evolved to perceive agency in things that have none, to make associations that might not exist. Believing comes naturally.

Critical thinking is one of the last intellectual skills human children develop. We’re not born atheist, you see. As we learned from Alcock today, “We are born as magical thinkers.” I think that just makes skeptics’ work all the more important.

George Hrab Masters the Ceremony at CSICon

Our master of ceremonies George Hrab is definitely kicking CSICon off in the right spirit. Yes, he’s got great songs that suit the theme perfectly, but he’s also engaging the attendees, seeing who has traveled the farthest both geographically and, sort of, ideologically.

An attendee from Australia might be the farthest-traveled, but he also chatted with an attendee from Dubai who sells luxury boats (George was really excited about that), and said, “The apostasy laws are pretty relaxed.” Oh, well good.

At some point, George said that we might be in danger of contracting “reticent uvula,” and “coroner’s wrist,” among other conditions.

Skeptics Come to a Fantasy World to “Survive the Present Moment”

In the promotional material for CSICon this year, we used a lot of allusions to Vegas as a “city of illusions,” a notable contrast to the aims of a conference like this: the dispelling of illusions, or at least harmful ones. And arriving here during the day, to a hotel like the Excalibur, yes, it’s about illusion, for sure, but not in the sense of being fooled or having your mind blown as in a magic act. It’s more in the sense of a wilful illusion. “Let’s pretend this is a magic castle.”

On a hazy day in Las Vegas, the place looks almost like an abandoned theme park. Well, that’s not quite right. Maybe more like a distant relative of a theme park that sometimes gets involved in some questionable dealings and we just don’t bring it up at Thanksgiving. But the Excalibur itself is particularly fantastic; I audibly chuckled when I finally saw it from my taxi window. It’s a monument to “let’s play pretend.”

But we’re not going to see too much of the outside of this castle. There is so much going on over these next few days, I’m a little intimidated. There are hundreds of people here who are really excited. The sessions are packed into a relentless schedule so there is something new going on all the time. (Probably for the best, so I don’t get tempted to sneak off and try and lose my money to a slot machine.)

20161027_195215Our conference comes at a time when the country is going googly-eyed over the constant stream of information and misinformation, anxiety, and conspiracy mongering of the 2016 election. At a reception last night, Robyn Blumner, the CEO of CFI, said she had a lot of hope for the future of reason and skepticism, if we can only “survive the present moment.” This conference will be a good shot in the arm for that. We’ll fortify our brains and our psyches for the home stretch of the election, ready to bring our sharpened critical thinking to the rest of the year, and the rest of our lives.

As long as we don’t get lost among the Big Bang Theory and Ellen DeGeneres themed slot machines. Could happen.

Come Back to CFI Live on October 27 for Coverage of CSICon Las Vegas!

I’ll be honest. I don’t know what to expect from CSICon this year.

I mean, I know it will have amazing speakers giving fascinating presentations. I know it will be filled to the brim with attendees, great people all getting connected, making friends, getting enlightened, and enjoying each other’s company. And I know there will be a Halloween party with lots of super-smart skeptic types, a great many of whom, how shall I say, tend toward the nerdier part of the cultural spectrum. I’m mostly ready for all of that.

But I sense something more. I mean, it’s happening in Las Vegas, and that in itself means it’s going to be a little different than your average skeptic symposium, am I right? Come on, it’s being held in this Arthurian-themed medieval castle-casino-hotel venue, which I have to assume will at least lend some sort of, um, novelty to the proceedings (not to mention the joust we’re all going to witness). And there’s just going to be so many of us. It’s dizzying to think about!

If you can’t be there, I have one consolation. I’ll be here for you. Not in the emotional support sense, but I will be here at CFI Live, on the ground at CSICon, keeping you up to date and informed of the ideas, debates, sights, sounds, and hopefully-not smells of what is sure to be a remarkable event in a city that is literally like no other.

Bookmark this page – – right now, and come back on October 27, and keep coming back throughout the weekend for mostly-real-time updates on everything that’s happening at CSICon 2016…or, at least as much as I can possibly process.

It almost doesn’t seem real, does it? But it is, I tell you. It really is.

I’ll see you back here on Thursday, October 27. You can also follow along with the CFI Twitter account with the hashtag #CSICon, and I promise: if Houdini finally shows up at the séance, I will totally get a picture on our Instagram account.


Bonya Ahmed Connects the Global Dots on Religious Extremism


Just as we finished our Reason Rally coverage with Bonya Ahmed, so we do again as she closes out the fourth Women in Secularism conference.

Things have changed, even just since June. There was something quieter about her presentation at the Reason Rally, in this writer’s opinion, but today, she was fiery, newly invigorated, spurred by a purpose she’s in the process of discovering.

If you don’t know her story, it’s harrowing. She survived the attack in Dhaka by Islamists that claimed the life of her husband Avijit Roy, and would later claim several other secularist and progressive activists in similarly gruesome manners. Ahmed herself barely made it out alive, with multiple, horrible wounds, and a painful recovery. “Most of my fingers don’t work anymore,” she told us.

Now, she’s directing her efforts toward better understanding the rise of extremism in Bangladesh, getting a more nuanced understanding of why this is happening now. This was notable, because her address wasn’t merely an alarm, warning us all about the ongoing crisis of militant Islam in Bangladesh, but a global look at how myriad factors contributed to the current situation.

She talked about the vast garment industry in Bangladesh, 4 million workers strong, and mostly women, all working for meager wages and in horrid and dangerous conditions. She asked us to remember that global consumerism and the struggle for resources between the U.S. and Russia all impact and infect the climate of Bangladesh. She reminded us that Bangladesh hasn’t reaped the rewards of political and economic advances that the West has enjoyed over the past century. “How can I blame religion only without [also] blaming local and foreign powers who use religion as a tool to maintain their power?”

The problems Ahmed seeks to address are central to CFI’s work, especially now. Because of our mission, we tend to focus on the free expression and religious aspects of this human rights crisis, but it’s important even for us to take into account the global consumer economy, the corrupt regimes propped up by foreign powers, and the harrowing and fairly young history of Bangladesh as a nation-state. She helped us “connect the local dots to the global picture.”

But of course, religion is always there. “For me, it is very hard to separate feminism from skepticism, from atheism,” said Ahmed. She recalled her youth, discovering that religions — all of them — were lacking in sense, telling us, “I am so grateful to the Quran for making me such a strong atheist.”

We are so grateful for Bonya Ahmed.

Katha Pollitt talks Abortion Opposition and the Erasure of Women


Everyone was excited to see Katha Pollitt today. She’s been at Women in Secularism conferences before, and she’s always been evocative, enlightening, and funny. This was certainly the case today as she was interviewed on stage by Annie Laurie Gaylor about getting abortion “out of the closet” and out of the shadow of stigma.

“We have to start talking about abortion as a normal part of women’s lives,” Pollitt told us. “It always has been.” And in fact, even religions have not been, and are not always, tied to the notion that a fertilized egg is equivalent to a full person. She talked about the “wiggle room” that Southern Baptists allow for abortion, and how in Judaism, the woman is the “first person” of priority when there is a question of primacy.

A major stumbling block when it comes to abortion is the ingrained perception of women’s bodies as somehow being community property. Part of this is exacerbated by what Pollitt called the “baby-fication” of the fetus, treating a glob of cells like it’s a cute little infant in a onesie. But more to the point, the problem is that much of society views the woman’s body as violable. “If you’re looking at a fetus [in an ultrasound],” she said, “you’re erasing the woman.”

She brought up the fact that Christopher Hitchens had expressed his opposition to abortion, saying that to end a pregnancy must be a societal decision. Exasperated, Pollitt said, “Is society going to die in childbirth?”

In a quick aside toward the end, Gaylor asked Pollitt about why she is overt about her atheism, Pollitt said, “I think it’s important that that view be represented in the public sphere.” She’s an excellent representative, wouldn’t you say?


“Humanism Taught Me to Fight” – Secular Women in Other Movements


“Humanism taught me to fight, and to find purpose and meaning. It influences me every day.”

14468235_10154557672974868_3613273704925812523_oThose were some encouraging words from Kayley Whalen of the National LGBTQ Task Force. For the first session of Women in Secularism 4’s last day, CFI’s Stef McGraw moderated a panel with four activists on secular women whose work spans different movements and causes. For this writer, the takeaway theme for this conversation was a very hopeful one, that with humanism and secularism at one’s philosophical foundations, one can go forth and get active in other movements, creating a give and take between them that benefits everyone.

Whalen told her experience of coming out as a trans woman 11 years ago, and finding philosophy and humanism to be a path out of the religion that rejected her. “When I came out as trans, I was empowered by the humanist belief system,” giving her a new set of tools and a source of inspiration to fight against injustice.

14425345_10154557672984868_6077906768306558175_oSimilarly, Diane Burkholder of of One-Struggle KC talked about how reliance on the church was so limiting for back people in need, especially if they identified outside the community’s norms, and that a humanist alternative was necessary. “All my identities come into my work, and there’s a lot of overlap,” she said. Ecologist Kaberi Kar Gupta said, “Secularism made me what I am.” Hypatia Alexandria of Hispanic American Freethinkers spoke of the resilience she found by realizing that an “imaginary friend” won’t be there to make things happen for her.

The secular movement as phenomenon was revealed in this conversation as both a great source of strength and potential, as well as something that can be unnecessarily limited or narrow in scope and tolerance. “We’re used to talking to each other,” said Burkholder, “but because we’re marginalized, we’re afraid to call out shitheads in the movement.”

14500220_10154557672669868_9183519500139426643_oAnd the shitheads, as it were, are a real problem. As Alexandria pointed out, the secular community is no different from the rest of the population in that it has its ugly aspects and its arguments, and “trying to cumbaya all the time” isn’t productive anyway. But as Whalen made clear, “We have a men’s rights problem in the secular movement,” arguing that not every voice in the movement is equally valid and worthy of amplification.

“Do I always feel accepted? No. Do I feel accepted in places like this? Yes. I’m so glad we have Women in Secularism.”

14444867_10154557672679868_793505395781173880_o(At one point, Gupta discussed the phenomenon of gender-fluid lions, which was fascinating news to this writer.)

One particularly noteworthy theme that emerged was how the dreaded “mission creep” of secular organizations working on a wider array of issues (with admittedly limited resources) is in part addressed on a person by person basis. “We live in society,” said Alexandria, “so we need to work in different areas,” bringing the secularist point of view into other arenas, as individuals. Gupta discussed how she is able to enter non-white communities and make productive advances despite her atheism, and brings her critical and evidence-based thinking to bear on the task at hand.

14434992_10154557672979868_7761998698880121984_oBurkholder warned against the “mental masturbation” that can occur within secular convocations that fail to ask, “What is the work we’re doing to actually connect with people?” Given the limited resources of the “nonprofit industrial complex,” Burkholder said that the more we collaborate with other groups, the stronger our movement can be.

(At CFI, we do this all the time. We work side-by-side with groups across ideological and theological spectra on shared causes.)

There was so much more discussed here, so I’m not doing it justice, but it was very heartening to hear about all these often-overlooked opportunities to plant the secular point of view within other movements. But also the skepto-atheists as a whole need to open their minds to other points of view inside our own ivory-ish towers.

Alexandria said, “Don’t offer me a diversity photo op,” but bring people with different perspectives into the decision making process. And Gupta declared, “I make up [for] my height with my voice.” We certainly heard her.

Fault Lines for Free Speech at Women in Secularism 4


The debate over free speech and safe spaces advanced with an impassioned, heated panel discussion at the last session of the second day of Women in Secularism 4. It wouldn’t be correct to say that there were “bright lines” between opinions, because the core values were broadly shared among the panelists, but the differences within those values were strongly held.

14424718_10154555814484868_8570451716246779036_oThoroughly opposing the notion of safe spaces was Maryam Namazie, forcefully declaring that the rise of safe spaces is due almost entirely to identity politics, and that they are really a form of censorship. “Universities should be unsafe spaces for ideas you might not be comfortable with,” she said, arguing that identity politics have a homogenizing effect in marginalized communities, stifling dissent from within.

14435247_10154555814264868_1668352916876607448_oDiane Burkholder, cofounder of One-Struggle KC and American Humanist Association’s LGBTQ Humanist Alliance, had her Women in Secularism debut on this panel. She firmly took the position that given the white-dominated structure that universities exist in, one privileged community shouldn’t be telling another marginalized community what their spaces can and cannot look like.

14409444_10154555815874868_2811208722474884822_oMelanie Brewster advocated for something simpler, and it’s a theme she would return to: thoughtfulness. Rather than focus on censorship, she posited that it’s no big sacrifice to allow someone to be clear about what hurts them, and being open to hearing that if you’re in a position of power. Without having a place where they are safe to speak, she asked, how else can they have their voices heard when they are so often being told to keep quiet? (Burkholder expanded on this, saying that taking accountability for the words one uses is an exercise of emotional intelligence, which is something incredibly valuable in itself.)

14434838_10154555814254868_4607165581811822602_oSarah Haider, generally opposing the “safe space” model, often returned to the question of “who decides?” as in, who decides who is marginalized and who is privileged? Who decides what the rules of safety are? She pointed out that for herself, she is privileged and “safe” in some contexts, and marginalized in others.

A move to the discussion of trigger warnings showed similar fault lines. Brewster described them as a simple courtesy, a humane way to prepare people for kinds of content that could genuinely affect them on a physiological/psychological level. Burkholder, who preferred the term “content warning,” noted that in her own experience of being deluged with images of black pain, “if I can do something to protect by baby bubble,” there are times when such a warning is absolutely necessary for her well being.

Haider, however, was concerned about the precedent such concepts set, that these warnings might be “inculcating an attitude among students that they have a right not to feel disturbed or upset by something.” Namazie was also not convinced of their value, saying, “I wish I had a trigger warning for this panel!”

More clarity about the lines of disagreement emerged when the discussion addressed the dis-invitation of certain speakers, something Namazie has had first hand experience with. Namazie and Haider advocated for protest as a way to express opposition for unwanted speakers, though Brewster wondered aloud whether students’ demands for dis-invitations are not themselves an example of free speech. And there seemed to be an agreement that students have the right to ask. (Or, as Ashley Miller the moderator put it, “Isn’t telling someone to shut up speech?”) Burkholder raised the point that protest isn’t a blanket solution, particularly when it comes to black protests on campus, which are often met with hostility.

Everyone seemed to agree that universities are places where debate needs to happen, where protest and argument and challenging ideas are vital, but the clash comes when the discussion turns to where or whether partitions can go up to contain and protect certain identities and/or ideas. At what point does speech morph into, well, something else that warrants cordoning off? And who decides?

It may only be answerable one campus, one group, one person at a time. And even then?