You can skip this and just go read Leaving Fundamentalism

Bristol Palin is pregnant. Again.

Like most people in the liberal/left/skeptic/atheist crowd, my first instinct was a roll-eyed sigh and maybe a bit of a knowing laugh about hypocrisy and irony… I’ll not waste words rehashing the reasons anyone might think that.

Obligatory photo for preview and Open Graph purposes…..

Then two things happened:

  1. I read Dan Savage’s take on the situation. Yes, I agree that if it was either of Obama’s daughters the likes of Fox News would be going into slut-shaming overdrive… but more broadly that made me wonder if said liberal/left/skeptic/atheist crowd were, in fact, doing pretty much the same thing to Bristol Palin. Unrestricted laughing and slut-shaming isn’t okay when Fox does it, it damn-well shouldn’t be when we do it in any form whatsoever.
  2. I read Bristol’s comments on the situation. Those made me think that she was almost certainly more of a victim, in this situation, of a pretty fucked up religious upbringing – she feels the need to consider herself a “disappointment” over this, and that she’s expected to handle it with “grace and dignity”. Think about that for a moment, and the sheer levels of expectation piled upon someone thrust into the public sphere, and then for another moment to what those expectations are. There is definitely something bubbling underneath the surface that is way more messed up than the mere “hypocrisy” you can see from a casual glance at the situation.

(Of course, the “grace and dignity” thing is a pretty trivial goal when you’re immensely wealthy. Such a feat would be significantly more difficult if you were poor, and part of the class that right-wing ideology consistently targets and denigrates on a daily basis. Try handling pregnancy and a newborn with “grace and dignity” when you’re visiting a food bank, then we’ll talk. But aside from that…)

Then a third thing happened: I read Jonny Scaramanga’s Leaving Fundamentalism blog on the subject (he’s now on Patheos, not WordPress, so I can’t simply re-blog it here). There’s very little I disagree with about it, and he put it in many, well-crafted words so I don’t have to. So, if I have any genuine subscribers and non-spam accounts following me, and if I have any real influence in the world at all, please read Scaramanga’s piece on this, reflect on it, and think about it. It’s one of the few things in this world right now that might leave you actually smarter, rather than simply feeling smarter.

Yes, You Are Allowed to Say Whatever You Want – You’re Asking For Something Else

Whenever something like Tim Hunt’s clusterderp happens in the world, there’s one phrase I can absolutely count on hearing almost immediately. It’s so unavoidable, so foreseeable and so inevitable that I can close my eyes, count down 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and hear the words…

“You’re just not allowed to say anything these days!”

This isn’t just some generic wry observation of Twitter. It isn’t some modern social media phenomenon by a long shot. I hear this from all corners, including from work colleagues while they sip their instant coffee and read the broadsheet-du-jour. It’s the most infuriating cliché – a close relative of “it’s political correctness gone mad”, although more likely to be found in natural verbal conversation, whereas the lesser-spotted Politicus correctnessgonemadius can be found limited only to the dry wilderness of right-wing tabloid letters sections.

What makes it so infuriating is that it’s simply not true. You are allowed to say anything in nearly every first-world democracy. If you’re American, it’s enshrined in constitutional law. If you’re British, it’s retained in a complex series of traditions and precedents. You absolutely can say whatever you want.

Where were the people who supposedly don’t allow you to say these things when Katie Hopkins said, in a national newspaper with a circulation of millions, that she’d happily gun down refugees in cold blood? Where were these Thought Police when Nigel Farage mouthed off at an audience, accusing them of being left-wing shills? Were they napping or looking the other way for the last decade or so of Jeremy Clarkson’s existence? And everyone remember when someone went up to David Starkey and said “nope, you can’t compare the Scottish Nationalist Party to the Nazis” with a gun against his head? Because reality certainly doesn’t.

For illustrative purposes only.

For illustrative purposes only.

The world absolutely agrees – you are allowed to say things.  Not “except for”. Not even “within reason”. You can say anything.

It’s what happens next that’s the free for all.

While the “political-correctness-gone-mad-lite” types bark about the long and prestigious tradition that western democracies have for freedom of speech, they resolutely ignore the equally long and prestigious tradition of people being held to account for what they say, for what they incite, and for what they tell others to do. I shouldn’t even have to raise the “shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre” test. Or point out that you can be convicted for murder even if you hire a someone else to do the killing – even though your orders are nothing more than an exchange of words. I shouldn’t have to tell you all about slander and libel laws, which hold people to account for their words – quite literally just their words, spoken or written. These are things you all, including the “you can’t say anything” crowd, should be fully aware of. We have a very grand tradition of policing words – it’s not a new thing.

You’re allowed to say what you like, you’re just not free from its consequences. If you incite violence through your speech, the law and society will punish you for it. If you slander and damage someone’s reputation through lies and deceit, law and society will punish you for it. And society does that because words aren’t just isolated things; they convey information and ideas, and they can cause actions to come about. They’re far from harmless, so society and law treats them appropriately. What might just be a newer phenomenon is that increasingly, although the law still rarely gets involved, if you start making life hell for people who have had enough of your shit – insert countless examples or misogyny, racism, homophobia… – society will now scrutinise you for it. Because we’re realising that words can have a knock-on effect and consequences far beyond the obvious of slander and libel. You might think that the odd off-hand comment here and there can’t hurt, but the layers upon layers of micro-bullshit add up to a real effect eventually. We all accept that lies and slander about an individual is something where speech should be held to account – and so should lies and slander, in the form of slurs and “jokes”, about groups of people. At last, the more progressive component of society have said “enough” – “e-fucking-nough” – and aren’t going to take it any more. We’re going to call it out and we’re going to make a fuss.

And why shouldn’t we? After all, we are allowed to say what we want. That’s a freedom that absolutely extends to telling people that they are full of shit. We reserve the right to say that, in reality, words cause real damage and people need to answer for the damage they cause – one might lament that the career of one 70-year-old Nobel Prize winner has been “destroyed” (insomuch that you can “destroy” a career at that stage), but what about the number of women who would have heard those comments and thought “nope, science isn’t for me, that University isn’t for me, that career isn’t for me”. What about their careers? Wait, are you saying we’re not allowed to stand up for them? Are they just the wrong kind of people? Are we not allowed to criticise outright idiotic misogyny to help encourage them (or at least counter the incessant discouragement), and to stop their careers from being truly destroyed before they begin?

Because when someone declares “you’re not allowed to say anything these days!” that’s exactly what they’re demanding. They’re asking for special immunity from criticism. They’re asking for other people to roll over and shut up about it. They want special treatment, and to be put in a nice padded box where their opinions can get out but no dissenting opinion can get in. They want to say whatever they like and get away with it.

Why do they want that? Ironically, Tim Hunt said it best – “when you criticise them, they cry”.

What’s Stopping You? Nothing, and That’s the Point.

For years upon years upon years, religious apologists have been asking the same question of the non-religious and non-believers – what’s stopping you from committing crimes? What holds you back from raping, murdering, stealing and generally causing chaos? What stops you?


After all, we don’t – and to a degree can’t – live by any moral guidance determined for us and dictated from up on high.

Now, this opens up a huge can of worms when you take it to its conclusion; namely, that such questions imply that if the existence of an all-powerful creator-deity was suddenly disproved, or that said-theist stopped believing in it overnight, that they’d immediately embark upon a murderous rampage leaving nothing but dust in their wake. It assumes that under humanity’s playful exterior beats the heart of a ruthless, sadistic maniac. A fair assessment of humanity given our track record, sure, but not one that exclusively correlates with atheism. It also raises issues of trust – would you trust someone who explicitly said that the only thing stopping them from knifing you in the face right this second was their fear of a god?

Tu quoque aside, a far more interesting response to the accusation of being an atheistic amoral psychopath is brutal honesty – nothing is stopping me. Literally nothing stops us, as non-believers, from stealing, murdering, raping and pillaging, vandalising, burgling, buggering, and blasting our way across the planet for the whole duration of our short, sad and miserable time on it. But the simple fact is… we just don’t do that. By-and-large, we’re peaceful people. By-and-large, people are good. A person will stop to help another if they’re able, they’ll obey the law – something that only really exists to prevent the minority from exploiting the kindly majority.

So the accusation levelled by apologists really doesn’t make any sense so long as the atheist they’re talking to isn’t, in fact, committing any crime or sin. Nothing is stopping me from doing all that stuff. Nothing at all. I have simply murdered and raped everyone I have wanted to, and I have vandalised and stolen and destroyed everything I have wanted to. I won’t claim cherubic innocence on every count, but those cases really do round-off to zero. I have done everything I have wanted to, and it just so happens I haven’t wanted to do any of those criminal or immoral acts.

Anyway, that’s all introduction material. It’s all been said before, by multiple people, and probably in longer and shorter forms. You know this, surely.

My question is this – has anyone ever heard of a response to it? The likes of Ken Ham seem to base their entire anti-atheist worldview on it (see the accompanying image above). Their claimed monopoly on the laws of morality and goodness – or, at least, acts that we consider positive, constructive, non-harmful, and wellness- and happiness-maximising – relies on this absurd notion that we are a bunch of wild and rabid lunatics underneath. They need us to be sinful in the absence of God. But we’re not. They need us to be wild savages without the guidance of the Bible. But we’re not. The position is fundamentally flawed and falls at this very first, very mild hurdle.

So what next?

What therefore proves you must need God to be good even in the face of this?

What shows that we cannot possibly make moral decisions for ourselves even in the face of evidence that we make moral decisions for ourselves?

The ball has been on the theistic side of the net for a while now. I can’t even recall the first time I heard someone say “I’ve murdered exactly the number of people I wanted to: none”. Has anyone out there in Internet Land heard of a response to that?

This is a genuine question for those out there – have the Hams, Comforts or even the C. S. Lewises of the world ever taken the next step? And if not, why not? And how would you even begin, hypothetically speaking, to throw the ball back?

10 Things All Academics Do – That They’ll Never Admit To

1. Cite the Book of the Dead in your publications

Who can forget the first time they stumbled upon this one simple trick for conveying your membership of the RSC to your reviewers!

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2. Sacrifice the souls of your students to C’traefth’talh, the lesser demon god of Ki’taaal

It’s a laugh, isn’t it?

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3. Spend excess grant money on grand pianos

Unlike cars, they don’t depreciate in value and we’re still years away from Peak Piano – making them a good investment for all laboratories everywhere.

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4. Dance the Macarena in Social Studies 304

It always confuses students because that sort of behaviour belongs in Org. Chem 3105, but we all get confused.

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5. Play Pin-the-Thesis-on-the-Postgrad

This new replacement for the traditional thesis defence and viva has become all the rage on continental Europe.

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6. Get blind drunk before a meeting with the Vice Chancellor

It’s important to be at least as sozzled as the token millionaire in the room.


7. Fake global warming data

Though you have to be careful – otherwise you might accidentally release the information to the public that proves chemtrails exist.

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8. Brew prison hooch in the technicians cabinet

Remember when you first discovered this trick? Good job the medical school has a stock of anti-nausea IV drips!

9. Induce Stockholm Syndrome in your first years


That’s another couple of grand in fees, making this one well worth it.

10. Turn up to lectures on time

But don’t tell anyone, or that carefully crafted air of incompetence that stops them bugging you will be for nothing!

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