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Dr. Kevin Dutton, on Demand
The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success

Dr. Kevin Dutton (photo by Robert Paul Williams)

University of Oxford research psychologist Dr. Kevin Dutton reveals that there is a scale of “madness” along which we all sit. Incorporating the latest advances in brain scanning and neuroscience, Dutton demonstrates that the brilliant neurosurgeon who lacks empathy has more in common with a Ted Bundy who kills for pleasure than we may wish to admit, and that a mugger in a dimly lit parking lot may well, in fact, have the same nerveless poise as a titan of industry. Dutton argues that there are “functional psychopaths” among us—different from their murderous counterparts—who use their detached, unflinching, and charismatic personalities to succeed in mainstream society, and that shockingly, in some fields, the more “psychopathic” people are, the more likely they are to succeed. Dutton deconstructs this often misunderstood diagnosis through bold on-the-ground reporting and original scientific research as he mingles with the criminally insane in a high-security ward, shares a drink with one of the world’s most successful con artists, and undergoes transcranial magnetic stimulation to discover firsthand exactly how it feels to see through the eyes of a psychopath.

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The Most Famous American You’ve Never Heard Of
SKEPTICALITY EPISODE 234

This week on Skepticality, Derek talks with Gary Kaskel, film maker turned animal protection advocate. Gary’s latest book, Monsters and Miracles: Henry Bergh’s America, is a biographical look into Henry Bergh, a man who founded two social justice organizations directly after the United States Civil War. Almost everyone has heard of the ASPCA and about the same number of people also believe that children should be protected and have the right not to be treated as property. However, what most people don’t know is that both of those things were pushed to the forefront of public understanding due to one man, Henry Bergh. Find out more about the man who can be easily called ‘The most famous American you’ve never heard of.’

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About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, Sigfried Gold reviews Atheists in America, edited by Melanie E. Brewster. (Columbia University Press. ISBN: 978-0231163583)

Sigfried Gold writes and speaks about spirituality, atheism, ethics, recovery, and the spiritual challenges and opportunities faced by religious outsiders and skeptics. Writing by and about him is available at tailoredbeliefs.com. He has Master’s degrees in Creative Writing and Biomedical Informatics and makes a living designing and building interactive information visualization tools that allow researchers to explore and make sense of complex data. He lives with his wife and two kids in Washington, DC and tweets occasionally at @godforatheists.

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Coming Out Skeptical

by Sigfried Gold

How do we imagine atheists? What images, what feelings, what associations come to mind when we think “atheist”?

Melanie E. Brewster’s Atheists in America presents 27 first-person “coming out stories” garnered through a national solicitation, giving us something like actual faces to tie to the label atheist—much welcome for anyone who wants to go beyond polemics and think about atheists as people. Dr. Brewster is a professor of Counseling Psychology at Columbia University and her book seeks to redress the extreme paucity of academic research (1,200 peer reviewed articles related to atheism compared to 480,000 on religiosity and spirituality in general) by presenting “personal narratives that will illustrate how people from different cultures, religious backgrounds, cities, ages, sexual orientations, and family structures have reached their identities as atheist.”

Brewster’s commentary makes clear a political agenda in addition to this academic aim: she wants to establish atheists as a stigmatized, marginalized identity group alongside other such groups in the “broader multicultural and social justice discourse.” Beyond framing these as coming out stories (and the obvious reference to Angels in America in the title), she draws parallels between atheism and LBGTQ identity in terms of marginalization and the issues faced in disclosure and closeting.

Many of the stories are of people who came from dogmatically religious families and communities, people who had to fight hard against internal conditioning and external pressures and coercion before they could emerge as atheists. The majority of the stories take place in the Bible Belt or other conservative parts of the country. Atheism seems to frequently accompany the awakening of liberal political consciousness. I’m not well-versed in the demographics, but suspect a significant subset of atheists are politically conservative libertarians, sometimes even Republicans; atheists like that don’t seem to appear in the book much if at all. There are also only a handful of stories from blue electoral districts. Brewster did intend to show a cross-section of American atheists. I wish I had a better sense of just how representative her sample is.

Most of the stories speak powerfully to the marginalization and isolation atheists feel in religious families and church communities, in small towns, even in secular workplaces. The stigma attached to atheism for many of these writers turns the process of questioning religious dogma into a long, painful ordeal, fraught with doubt, fear and the disapproval of loved ones.

Between the stories and the commentary we do get a picture of atheist identities, how they are formed, and the obstacles they face. But for all the valuable work this book does, it raises, in my mind at least, a host of questions that are never explicitly asked, much less answered, in the book itself:

  • What kinds of experience push a person over the edge from not believing to positively identifying as an atheist? The book does address the question of how people decide to come out of the closet once they have taken on the label internally, but the Pew Nones on the Rise report and other sources suggest that those who identify (in or out of the closet) as atheist are a small tip on the iceberg of those who don’t believe.
  • What causes those who do identify as atheists to take the further step of seeking out atheist or humanist communities? Strangely, the stories say almost nothing about the writers’ participation in these communities; but I assume a good portion of them do participate or, otherwise, how would they have come across Dr. Brewster’s solicitation for submissions? And for those who do participate, how do these communities meet or fail to meet the various needs met by faith communities?
  • In only one of the stories does the writer express a heartfelt sense of loss at leaving a religious community. The religious communities most of the authors emerged from sound singularly awful. Taken together, the stories reinforce my sense that the tone and stridency of a given person’s atheism, the self-righteousness of his claims to rationality, the virulence of her opposition to religion, is strongly reflective of the religious style of the family or community he or she emerged from. But is this conjecture just a bit of facile folk-psychology? It would be nice to see a book like Atheists in America address it head on and debunk it if it’s insupportable.
  • What do people lose—beyond inclusion and social standing—when they leave their religion? Several authors give cursory nods to humanistic values, their appreciation of the natural world, and the sense of freedom and self-determination that opens up when they let go of religious dogma; but have they also lost access to valuable spiritual tools? Most of these writers did not experience particularly good versions of their religions, so maybe not. Still, the recent appearance of godless congregations or atheist churches make one wonder what these “secularizing exits” leave behind.

Despite these questions, I urge you to read this book. The stories are mostly well-written. Others are interesting in themselves for offering an unvarnished view of some of “our” less appealing qualities. It’s helpful to hear these voices outside the context of heated polemic or reasoned argument; to hear what emerges when an atheist is just telling her own story. We get unguarded expressions of the writers’ intransigent rejection of others’ beliefs, glimpses of an injured, defensive grandiosity, but we also see genuine empathy and efforts to connect with others, to live openly and harmoniously with people of all beliefs. These stories are sufficiently varied to provide a base of source material from which to begin addressing vital questions around belief, unbelief and the space between. Atheists in America offers a forceful provocation to other scholars, researchers and journalists to explore these questions.

More importantly, I am eager to see how non-academic readers respond to this book. Will it act in the revolutionary way that the appearance of gay and lesbian coming out stories have since the 1970s? Will it give closeted atheists a mirror in which to recognize themselves? I personally know few atheists whose unbelief grew out of the hostile soil of an evangelical landscape, but now that I am aware of their prevalence, I hope these stories can reach and encourage others struggling to shape their own ideas. END

14 Comments »

14 Comments

  1. Bob Pease says:

    I hope that this issue generates more response that we have been experiencing lately.

    The issue here seems to be who should self-identify as an “Atheist” and to whom.

    Unfortunately, the term “atheist” has the context of “CURB” ( Commie Un-American Rat Bastard)
    to many folks outside of the microcosm of fundamentalists mentioned in the article.
    My personal reaction to the Question
    “Are you an Atheist?”
    Depends on who’s asking me.

    Usually the real question they are asking is for some support or denial of their estimate of your religiosity.

    For the readers of this venue, I will say
    “ the term is not well-defined enough for me to answer.”

    I am a Scientific Skeptic, and so the term “Atheist”
    Means
    “a person who believes that God does not exist”

    But I would have to reply
    “Tell me what you mean by “God” and I will tell you if I am aware of sufficient evidence of the existence of that.”

    To which I am usually accused of Blathering, and labeled a atheist who pretends to be “Just” an “Agnostic” to avoid being hated , deluded or being Un-American Egghead

    The best answer I can envision is
    “Who giffs der fick??”
    Sung as a Contrabasso gig in C-Minor by Glib Chendrowskyj
    As usual, the best answer is

    “How about them Broncos??”

    Sic transit

    Dr. S

    • Bad Boy Scientist says:

      Dr S. hits the nail on the head here. Self labeling as an atheist is more tricky than self labeling as LGBTQ – not to say there’s no ambiguity in the spectrum of sexual orientation – the fact that there are five choices for self-labeling makes that clear. But it is even more complicated when talking about beliefs in the supernatural. The answer to ‘Are you an atheist?’ depends on who is asking and what presuppositions are made when asking… and even then a good answer is almost impossible.

      There are basically 3 choices: Atheist, Agnostic, and Believer – this is absurd. There are many other options – suppose someone doesn’t believe in a ‘personal’ god (a beard in the sky) but in an abstract, “It Is” which lacks body and form? If the nature of their ‘god’ differs that much from the Judeo-Christian-Muslim god, do they actually believe in a ‘god’?

      Where do the multitude of world religions fit in? What about ‘Great Spirit’ gods? Or ‘life essence’ gods? Or quintessence gods? How ’bout them thetans?

      One may quibble whether or not to label these supernatural things ‘gods’ – does it have to be a ‘being’ to be a god? (If so, what constitutes a ‘being’?). If you decree that the object of worship of some group is not, in fact, a god, are these worshipers atheists? Either way, isn’t that missing the most important point: belief in the supernatural?

      In summary, when my religious relatives badger me about my belief in god, I always tell them that after having actually read the Bible and noting how often it is pointed out that we puny humans are incapable of grasping the nature of god, all I am sure of is the Sunday School view of a great beard in the sky is as true as Santa Claus (who also has a beard and travels across the sky!). That view of god is a ‘lie to children’ that many grown ups have not out-grown. Since the nature of god – as told by the bible – is unknown, I can have no definite belief pro or con.

      • Pastor Kyle says:

        Here is a prime example of what builds tension between believers and skeptics. Reducing someone’s faith in a personal God to a “beard in the sky” is very offensive. Hopefully there’s quite a bit more to it for the believer (and if there isn’t, maybe a beard in the sky is all God is to them after all, an old man with a stern brow who frowns on sin all day long).

        I’ve encountered many unbelievers who tell me that they have read the Bible through and through and simply walked away unimpressed, but when we begin to discuss scripture and they present a two-dimensional simplification of the complex yet identifiable God of the Bible (your beard in the sky, sky-god, fairy tale, or Santa Claus God… take your pick), as a theologian, I can’t help but feel that I’m speaking with someone who hasn’t given the material thorough consideration. Just as me calling you a beard with feet would be an absurd (and very unenlightened) description of all that you are, calling God a beard in the sky just seems childish. God is a Spirit. The beard is optional (but very cool).

        Thanks for your consideration,

        Pastor Kyle

      • Queer trans atheist says:

        As a queer trans woman who’s an atheist, I can assure you that self-labeling as an atheist is not more tricky than self-labeling as LGBTQ, nor are these the only five options. In fact, the “Q” in this acronym is for queer, which itself is often defined as a complex umbrella term used to capture the range of sexual and romantic orientations that don’t quite fall under the more widely known categories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and straight, along with those that do. For example, I’m attracted to men (cisgender and transgender), genderqueer people, and non-binary identified individuals, but I’m not attracted to women (cisgender or transgender). What is my orientation? It doesn’t neatly fit into the categories of gay, bi, lesbian, or straight, and so I use the term queer to capture this complexity. There are also terms like pansexual, asexual, skoliosexual, monosexual, panromantic, and many others. In fact, there’s growing distinction between having sexual attraction and romantic attraction, and increasing discussion on the range of possibilities it opens up. For example, one individual might identify as pansexual in their sexual attraction (attracted to all genders), but find they are only romantically attracted to those who identify as women. They might self-label as pansexual and gyneromantic. Furthermore, how do we define someone’s orientation who is non-binary identified (does not identify as a man or a woman)? How do we define a sexual attraction to someone who is intersex, who was born with ambiguous genitalia, and/or whose chromosomes fall outside of the (false) dichotomy of XX and XY? There is nothing simple about sexual orientation and gender identity. I find it can often be a challenge to explain to people what it means for me to be queer identified trans woman, and that it is not a gay relationship for me to be in a relationship with a man because I’m a trans woman (which people are often shocked to discover).

        My atheism, however, is a bit easier to explain. 1) It is not that I “believe that god does not exist,” rather that I “do not believe god exists.” That may seem like arguing semantics, but it’s not. The first one is about having a belief (that god does not exist), while the second is about not having a belief due to lack of evidence. 2) My atheism is largely informed by my degree in sociology. I critically examine religion as the social institution that it is, and examine the broader (overwhelmingly negative) effects it has had on humanity. It’s not about an individual person’s belief, but how religions shape and influence our society, and how our society then in turn influences and shapes religions. Similarly, I’m critical of patriarchy, but that doesn’t mean I hate, dislike, judge, or blame individual men for the problems that patriarchy has created. However, given patriarchy’s negative effects on humanity, I also cannot support it and must oppose it. After studying religion for many years, and after growing up Mormon, I’ve come to the same conclusion about religion. These social institutions have caused a massive amount of quantitative and qualitative harm to humanity. They may benefit a few individuals, in the same way patriarchy may benefit individual men; however, the damage they have done has been catastrophic. To use Christianity as an example (not to single it out, it’s just the dominant religion in the U.S., which is the country I reside in), it has an extensive and well documented history of murder, rape, torture, genocide, tyranny, racism, slavery, and colonization. In light of this, how can I support or condone such a social institution?

        Now, some may argue that I’m mistakenly conflating a belief in god with organized religion, but I would argue that this is not a mistake, and that a belief in something for which there is no empirical data is very clearly a social construct. As such, it can be analyzed as we would any other social construct. Furthermore, when a social construct becomes a social institution, it can no longer be so easily separated out, and must be examined as the social institution that it is, within its broader socio-historical context. To do otherwise is like trying to separate oil from water after they’ve been mixed, or to use the aforementioned analogy again, it’s like trying to analyze individual men outside of the context of patriarchy, its socio-historical context, and its influence on men and our culture.

        • Sigfried Gold says:

          Hi Queer trans atheist,

          I don’t know if you’ve read the book, but you’ve presumably read my review. I’m curious how you feel about the idea of atheists being considered a marginalized identity group facing stigma and discrimination (though not the same risk of violence) the way LBGTQ and other oppressed minority groups do.

          There is no question in my mind that brutal oppression of LBGTQ people would have remained the norm if it hadn’t been for Stonewall and decades of organization and agitation from the LBGTQ community. But my read of the historical/political situation now is that similar agitation from atheists will not produce the kind of positive benefits that the gay rights movement has. But as an atheist living in a liberal, East Coast, northernish city, maybe I’m just not getting it. You seem to be well-positioned to answer the main question I’m raising in this review. What do you think?

          Thanks,
          Sigfried

  2. GEORGE EDELSTEIN says:

    AMEN. I think “non-believers” and people who aren’t otherwise superstitious may be hobbling themselves by using “atheist” instead of agnostic (the “what do I know?” approach).

    If atheism still means a belief that there is no G-d or any other supernatural force directing traffic, aren’t atheists simply a mirror-image of “believers”? Both believe something that isn’t falsifiable. Maybe the problem is an innate desire to belong to some identifiable group or other. Maybe the problem is the use of labels to begin with. But what do I know?

    In my opinion it’s not worth worrying about, unless you’re intent on evangelizing for some particular label (which, as we’ve seen from the beginning of time — if any — is a doomed enterprise for non-believers).

    Maybe (again) the only useful tool is ridicule. You can express a non-belief in Zeus and admit that you don’t ask Him for special favors, even, without getting much of an argument.

    And, you don’t have to say you’re an atheist (or even an agnostic) when Osiris comes up.

    Plus, when the Intelligent [sic] Design people bring up the “Eyeball Proof,” point out that He hasn’t perfected the thing yet, so He had to Design corrective lenses, which took him a pretty long time, for that matter.

    What’s needed is a catchy (suitable for a bumper sticker) label for “I’m not superstitious,” which sums it up for me (and drives away most evangelists).

  3. Dr Jane says:

    <<>>

    Thanks Dr S. I needed a smile.

    Hi George,

    The usual response to the “Eyeball proof” is to ask what sort of intelligent designer would put the nerves that receive information from the retina in between the light source and the retina.
    However there is something in common between people with deeply held beliefs and people who experience delusions- in that evidence that should contradict the belief is somehow recruited into the delusional architecture to reinforce it- see for example this;
    http://www.icr.org/article/backwards-human-retina-evidence-poor-design/
    .
    Dr J.

    Dr J.

  4. Pastor Kyle says:

    Making one’s unbelief known is no different than making one’s belief known. Universal acceptance is not guaranteed, and certainly it cannot be demanded. The believer can’t be expected to slap the “outed” atheist on the back with a hardy “Good on ya!” That being said, as a believer I’ll address why I prefer honest doubt to false faith.

    As a believer, the unbeliever, for me is simply a person without faith. There are far more “unbelievers” who identify themselves as Christians, but have no substance to their faith, so someone stepping forward to identify as an unbeliever is honest. . . and in my mind, far from the end of the story. Declaring one’s self an atheist is just a status update. This is where I am NOW, at this moment in my life. This is where my thoughts have led me.

    I am at peace with someone coming out as an atheist, because I know that unbelief does not have to be the final destination, it can simply be a leg of the journey that leads to the discovery of God. An exodus from false religion to true faith, perhaps.

    It’s unfortunate that some people take a very nasty detour in their atheism, one that causes them to lash out at believers. Atheism can become a euphemism for anti-religious, anti-faith, or even anti-believer. It simply isn’t reasonable, even for the person who has dismissed faith, the dismiss the faithful and write them off as ignorant, illogical, delusional, or corrupt. Just as the atheist doesn’t want to be misjudged or have their unbelief labeled as a “virus,” it is not constructive for the atheist to level such claims at believers (let’s be honest, its a form of racism and persecution).

    Those are just some of my thoughts on this issue. Thanks for reading.

    Pastor Kyle

  5. Bob Pease says:

    Thanks, Pastor for your interest in this matter.

    The term “atheist” is not well enough defined to even have any discussion of the matter.
    I stand by my original assertion which basically is.
    “Anyone bringing up the subject has an agenda , often advocating
    Dominionism ( eternal reign of their particular God, “cujus regni non erit finis” ), and associated restriction of civil liberties., but often soi-disant ” atheists” ridicule “believers” for reasons of ego or whatever.
    I wtill think the best answer is

    “How about them Broncs ?11”

    Bob Pease

    • Pastor Kyle says:

      In which case I’m really in trouble because I don’t watch football.

      • Bob Pease says:

        The beauty of “How about them ( supply any team name, any sport) ”
        is that you get to hear an opinion which has a lot more information that the “Original”

        RJP

  6. Fred M Snyder says:

    Has anyone else commented on school choirs, etc- changing the lyrics to “Imagine” by Lennon (changing”no religion, too” to “all religions, too”, etc.)? I was recently discussing the Celo Green incident of 2012 & a customer where I work brought up that at his child’s school they had done the same thing. Anyone else?
    Fred M. Snyder
    Hoboken, NJ

  7. Rowena Kitchen says:

    I have never been asked, ” Are you an atheist?” I have often been asked, “Are you a Christian?” The second question usually is asked by Christians with a specific set of beliefs they identify as being the only “right” Christianity and which they want everyone to hold.

    It is inappropriate to identify atheists as “unbelievers”. Whatever stance one takes on
    the issue of gods vs. no gods, and all else in between, is a belief.

    I would hazard a guess that most “atheists” who claim to have “read the bible through and through” have probably done so. Most “atheists” do not accept the bible as the “inerrant word of god”, but as a collection of different kinds of literature collected throughout history. Anyone who reads the bible thoroughly cannot escape the evidence that god evolved over time by incorporation of “beliefs” from not only the Jews, but the Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, et al. Scribes and scholars have changed the old and new testaments many times in an effort to make it seem more consistent with whatever beliefs prevailed at the time they lived. There are many noticeable discrepancies. To have a coherent/cohesive view of what the bible means, one must not give “the material thorough consideration” but read with a particular bias.

  8. Phea says:

    I choose not to believe in a god who choose not to reveal himself to everyone, everywhere, at the same time, then, cruelly watch as we kill each other, (in his name), for thousands of years. Such a “god” would be frightening, morally repugnant, and evil beyond measure. This is the god of Abraham.

    This combined with the fact that all religions did spring up at different times, in different places, among different cultures, seems to point to the rather obvious conclusion that religions are not divine revelation, but rather man-made phenomenon, similar to language, music, diet, and other customs. If any divine revelation, ANY, had happened at more than one place, it would at least be slightly credible. Belief in dragons is as credible, and makes as much sense as belief in any religion.

    I believe we are rapidly outgrowing our primitive need to believe in “magic”, and the supernatural to explain our universe. Science has, and will continue proving reality to be more mysterious, wondrous, and meaningful than any ancient supernatural myths ever could. I call myself an atheist.

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