Library of Scott Alexandria

I’ve said before that my favorite blog — and the one that’s shifted my views in the most varied and consequential ways — is Scott Alexander’s Slate Star Codex. Scott has written a lot of good stuff, and it can be hard to know where to begin; so I’ve listed below what I think are the best pieces for new readers to start with. This includes older writing, e.g., from Less Wrong.

The list should make the most sense to people who start from the top and read through it in order, though skipping around is encouraged too — many of the posts are self-contained. The list isn’t chronological. Instead, I’ve tried to order things by a mix of “where do I think most people should start reading?” plus “sorting related posts together.” If stuff doesn’t make sense, you may want to Google terms or read background material in Rationality: From AI to Zombies.

This is a work in progress; you’re invited to suggest things you’d add, remove, or shuffle around.


I. Rationality and Rationalization
○   Blue- and Yellow-Tinted Choices
○   The Apologist and the Revolutionary
○   Historical Realism
○   Simultaneously Right and Wrong
○   You May Already Be A Sinner
○   Beware the Man of One Study
○   Debunked and Well-Refuted
○   How to Not Lose an Argument
○   The Least Convenient Possible World
○   Bayes for Schizophrenics: Reasoning in Delusional Disorders
○   Generalizing from One Example
○   Typical Mind and Politics

II. Probabilism
○   Confidence Levels Inside and Outside an Argument
○   Schizophrenia and Geomagnetic Storms
○   Talking Snakes: A Cautionary Tale
○   Arguments from My Opponent Believes Something
○   Statistical Literacy Among Doctors Now Lower Than Chance
○   Techniques for Probability Estimates
○   On First Looking into Chapman’s “Pop Bayesianism”
○   Utilitarianism for Engineers
○   If It’s Worth Doing, It’s Worth Doing with Made-Up Statistics
○   Marijuana: Much More Than You Wanted to Know
○   Are You a Solar Deity?
○   The “Spot the Fakes” Test
○   Epistemic Learned Helplessness

III. Science and Doubt
○   Google Correlate Does Not Imply Google Causation
○   Stop Confounding Yourself! Stop Confounding Yourself!
○   Effects of Vertical Acceleration on Wrongness
○   90% Of All Claims About The Problems With Medical Studies Are Wrong
○   Prisons are Built with Bricks of Law and Brothels with Bricks of Religion, But That Doesn’t Prove a Causal Relationship
○   Noisy Poll Results and the Reptilian Muslim Climatologists from Mars
○   Two Dark Side Statistics Papers
○   Alcoholics Anonymous: Much More Than You Wanted to Know
○   The Control Group Is Out Of Control
○   The Cowpox of Doubt
○   The Skeptic’s Trilemma
○   If You Can’t Make Predictions, You’re Still in a Crisis

IV. Medicine, Therapy, and Human Enhancement
○   Scientific Freud
○   Sleep – Now by Prescription
○   In Defense of Psych Treatment for Attempted Suicide
○   Who By Very Slow Decay
○   Medicine, As Not Seen on TV
○   Searching for One-Sided Tradeoffs
○   Do Life Hacks Ever Reach Fixation?
○   Polyamory is Boring
○   Can You Condition Yourself?
○   Wirehead Gods on Lotus Thrones
○   Don’t Fear the Filter
○   Transhumanist Fables

V. Introduction to Game Theory
○   Backward Reasoning Over Decision Trees
○   Nash Equilibria and Schelling Points
○   Introduction to Prisoners’ Dilemma
○   Real-World Solutions to Prisoners’ Dilemmas
○   Interlude for Behavioral Economics
○   What is Signaling, Really?
○   Bargaining and Auctions
○   Imperfect Voting Systems
○   Game Theory as a Dark Art

VI. Promises and Principles
○   Beware Trivial Inconveniences
○   Time and Effort Discounting
○   Applied Picoeconomics
○   Schelling Fences on Slippery Slopes
○   Democracy is the Worst Form of Government Except for All the Others Except Possibly Futarchy
○   Eight Short Studies on Excuses
○   Revenge as Charitable Act
○   Would Your Real Preferences Please Stand Up?
○   Are Wireheads Happy?
○   Guilt: Another Gift Nobody Wants

VII. Cognition and Association
○   Diseased Thinking: Dissolving Questions about Disease
○   The Noncentral Fallacy — The Worst Argument in the World?
○   The Power of Positivist Thinking
○   When Truth Isn’t Enough
○   Ambijectivity
○   The Blue-Minimizing Robot
○   Basics of Animal Reinforcement
○   Wanting vs. Liking Revisited
○   Physical and Mental Behavior
○   Trivers on Self-Deception
○   Ego-Syntonic Thoughts and Values
○   Approving Reinforces Low-Effort Behaviors
○   To What Degree Do We Have Goals?
○   The Limits of Introspection
○   Secrets of the Eliminati
○   Tendencies in Reflective Equilibrium
○   Hansonian Optimism

VIII. Doing Good
○   Newtonian Ethics
○   Efficient Charity: Do Unto Others…
○   The Economics of Art and the Art of Economics
○   A Modest Proposal
○   The Life Issue
○   What if Drone Warfare Had Come First?
○   Nefarious Nefazodone and Flashy Rare Side-Effects
○   The Consequentialism FAQ
○   Doing Your Good Deed for the Day
○   I Myself Am A Scientismist
○   Whose Utilitarianism?
○   Book Review: After Virtue
○   Read History of Philosophy Backwards
○   Virtue Ethics: Not Practically Useful Either
○   Last Thoughts on Virtue Ethics
○   Proving Too Much

IX. Liberty
○   The Non-Libertarian FAQ (aka Why I Hate Your Freedom)
○   A Blessing in Disguise, Albeit a Very Good Disguise
○   Basic Income Guarantees
○   Book Review: The Nurture Assumption
○   The Death of Wages is Sin
○   Thank You For Doing Something Ambiguously Between Smoking And Not Smoking
○   Lies, Damned Lies, and Facebook (Part 1 of ∞)
○   The Life Cycle of Medical Ideas
○   Vote on Values, Outsource Beliefs
○   A Something Sort of Like Left-Libertarian-ist Manifesto
○   Plutocracy Isn’t About Money
○   Against Tulip Subsidies
○   SlateStarCodex Gives a Graduation Speech

X. Progress
○   Intellectual Hipsters and Meta-Contrarianism
○   A Signaling Theory of Class x Politics Interaction
○   Reactionary Philosophy in an Enormous, Planet-Sized Nutshell
○   A Thrive/Survive Theory of the Political Spectrum
○   We Wrestle Not With Flesh And Blood, But Against Powers And Principalities
○   Poor Folks Do Smile… For Now
○   Apart from Better Sanitation and Medicine and Education and Irrigation and Public Health and Roads and Public Order, What Has Modernity Done for Us?
○   The Wisdom of the Ancients
○   Can Atheists Appreciate Chesterton?
○   Holocaust Good for You, Research Finds, But Frequent Taunting Causes Cancer in Rats
○   Public Awareness Campaigns
○   Social Psychology is a Flamethrower
○   Nature is Not a Slate. It’s a Series of Levers.
○   The Anti-Reactionary FAQ
○   The Poor You Will Always Have With You
○   Proposed Biological Explanations for Historical Trends in Crime
○   Society is Fixed, Biology is Mutable

XI. Social Justice
○   Practically-a-Book Review: Dying to be Free
○   Drug Testing Welfare Users is a Sham, But Not for the Reasons You Think
○   The Meditation on Creepiness
○   The Meditation on Superweapons
○   The Meditation on the War on Applause Lights
○   The Meditation on Superweapons and Bingo
○   An Analysis of the Formalist Account of Power Relations in Democratic Societies
○   Arguments About Male Violence Prove Too Much
○   Social Justice for the Highly-Demanding-of-Rigor
○   Against Bravery Debates
○   All Debates Are Bravery Debates
○   A Comment I Posted on “What Would JT Do?”
○   We Are All MsScribe
○   The Spirit of the First Amendment
○   A Response to Apophemi on Triggers
○   Lies, Damned Lies, and Social Media: False Rape Accusations
○   In Favor of Niceness, Community, and Civilization

XII. Politicization
○   Right is the New Left
○   Weak Men are Superweapons
○   You Kant Dismiss Universalizability
○   I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup
○   Five Case Studies on Politicization
○   Black People Less Likely
○   Nydwracu’s Fnords
○   All in All, Another Brick in the Motte
○   Ethnic Tension and Meaningless Arguments
○   Race and Justice: Much More Than You Wanted to Know
○   Framing for Light Instead of Heat
○   The Wonderful Thing About Triggers
○   Fearful Symmetry
○   Archipelago and Atomic Communitarianism

XIII. Competition and Cooperation
○   The Demiurge’s Older Brother
○   Book Review: The Two-Income Trap
○   Just for Stealing a Mouthful of Bread
○   Meditations on Moloch
○   Misperceptions on Moloch
○   The Invisible Nation — Reconciling Utilitarianism and Contractualism
○   Freedom on the Centralized Web
○   Book Review: Singer on Marx
○   Does Class Warfare Have a Free Rider Problem?
○   Book Review: Red Plenty




If you liked these posts and want more, I suggest browsing the Slate Star Codex archives.

Politics is hard mode

Eliezer  Yudkowsky has written a delightful series of posts (originally on the economics blog Overcoming Bias) about why partisan debates are so frequently hostile and unproductive. Particularly incisive is A Fable of Science and Politics.

One of the broader points Eliezer makes is that, while political issues are important, political discussion isn’t the best place to train one’s ability to look at issues objectively and update on new evidence. The way I’d put it is that politics is hard mode; it takes an extraordinary amount of discipline and skill to communicate effectively in partisan clashe.

This jibes with my own experience; I’m much worse at arguing politics than at arguing other things. And psychological studies indicate that politics is hard mode even (or especially!) for political veterans; see Taber & Lodge (2006).

Eliezer’s way of putting the same point is (riffing off of Dune): ‘Politics is the Mind-Killer.’ An excerpt from that blog post:

Politics is an extension of war by other means. Arguments are soldiers. Once you know which side you’re on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it’s like stabbing your soldiers in the back — providing aid and comfort to the enemy. […]

I’m not saying that I think Overcoming Bias should be apolitical, or even that we should adopt Wikipedia’s ideal of the Neutral Point of View. But try to resist getting in those good, solid digs if you can possibly avoid it. If your topic legitimately relates to attempts to ban evolution in school curricula, then go ahead and talk about it — but don’t blame it explicitly on the whole Republican Party; some of your readers may be Republicans, and they may feel that the problem is a few rogues, not the entire party. As with Wikipedia’s NPOV, it doesn’t matter whether (you think) the Republican Party really is at fault. It’s just better for the spiritual growth of the community to discuss the issue without invoking color politics.

Scott Alexander fleshes out why it can be dialogue-killing to attack big groups (even when the attack is accurate) in another blog post, Weak Men Are Superweapons. And Eliezer expands on his view of partisanship in follow-up posts like The Robbers Cave Experiment and Hug the Query.


Some people involved in political advocacy and activism have objected to the “mind-killer” framing. Miri Mogilevsky of Brute Reason explained on Facebook:

My usual first objection is that it seems odd to single politics out as a “mind-killer” when there’s plenty of evidence that tribalism happens everywhere. Recently, there has been a whole kerfuffle within the field of psychology about replication of studies. Of course, some key studies have failed to replicate, leading to accusations of “bullying” and “witch-hunts” and what have you. Some of the people involved have since walked their language back, but it was still a rather concerning demonstration of mind-killing in action. People took “sides,” people became upset at people based on their “sides” rather than their actual opinions or behavior, and so on.

Unless this article refers specifically to electoral politics and Democrats and Republicans and things (not clear from the wording), “politics” is such a frightfully broad category of human experience that writing it off entirely as a mind-killer that cannot be discussed or else all rationality flies out the window effectively prohibits a large number of important issues from being discussed, by the very people who can, in theory, be counted upon to discuss them better than most. Is it “politics” for me to talk about my experience as a woman in gatherings that are predominantly composed of men? Many would say it is. But I’m sure that these groups of men stand to gain from hearing about my experiences, since some of them are concerned that so few women attend their events.

In this article, Eliezer notes, “Politics is an important domain to which we should individually apply our rationality — but it’s a terrible domain in which to learn rationality, or discuss rationality, unless all the discussants are already rational.” But that means that we all have to individually, privately apply rationality to politics without consulting anyone who can help us do this well. After all, there is no such thing as a discussant who is “rational”; there is a reason the website is called “Less Wrong” rather than “Not At All Wrong” or “Always 100% Right.” Assuming that we are all trying to be more rational, there is nobody better to discuss politics with than each other.

The rest of my objection to this meme has little to do with this article, which I think raises lots of great points, and more to do with the response that I’ve seen to it — an eye-rolling, condescending dismissal of politics itself and of anyone who cares about it. Of course, I’m totally fine if a given person isn’t interested in politics and doesn’t want to discuss it, but then they should say, “I’m not interested in this and would rather not discuss it,” or “I don’t think I can be rational in this discussion so I’d rather avoid it,” rather than sneeringly reminding me “You know, politics is the mind-killer,” as though I am an errant child. I’m well-aware of the dangers of politics to good thinking. I am also aware of the benefits of good thinking to politics. So I’ve decided to accept the risk and to try to apply good thinking there. […]

I’m sure there are also people who disagree with the article itself, but I don’t think I know those people personally. And to add a political dimension (heh), it’s relevant that most non-LW people (like me) initially encounter “politics is the mind-killer” being thrown out in comment threads, not through reading the original article. My opinion of the concept improved a lot once I read the article.

In the same thread, Andrew Mahone added, “Using it in that sneering way, Miri, seems just like a faux-rationalist version of ‘Oh, I don’t bother with politics.’ It’s just another way of looking down on any concerns larger than oneself as somehow dirty, only now, you know, rationalist dirty.” To which Miri replied: “Yeah, and what’s weird is that that really doesn’t seem to be Eliezer’s intent, judging by the eponymous article.”

Eliezer clarified that by “politics” he doesn’t generally mean ‘problems that can be directly addressed in local groups but happen to be politically charged’:

Hanson’s “Tug the Rope Sideways” principle, combined with the fact that large communities are hard to personally influence, explains a lot in practice about what I find suspicious about someone who claims that conventional national politics are the top priority to discuss. Obviously local community matters are exempt from that critique! I think if I’d substituted ‘national politics as seen on TV’ in a lot of the cases where I said ‘politics’ it would have more precisely conveyed what I was trying to say.

Even if polarized local politics is more instrumentally tractable, though, the worry remains that it’s a poor epistemic training ground. A subtler problem with banning “political” discussions on a blog or at a meet-up is that it’s hard to do fairly, because our snap judgments about what counts as “political” may themselves be affected by partisan divides. In many cases the status quo is thought of as apolitical,  even though objections to the status quo are ‘political.’ (Shades of Pretending to be Wise.)

Because politics gets personal fast, it’s hard to talk about it successfully. But if you’re trying to build a community, build friendships, or build a movement, you can’t outlaw everything ‘personal.’ And selectively outlawing personal stuff gets even messier. Last year, daenerys shared anonymized stories from women, including several that discussed past experiences where the writer had been attacked or made to feel unsafe. If those discussions are made off-limits because they’re ‘political,’ people may take away the message that they aren’t allowed to talk about, e.g., some harmful or alienating norm they see at meet-ups. I haven’t seen enough discussions of this failure mode to feel super confident people know how to avoid it.

Since this is one of the LessWrong memes that’s most likely to pop up in discussions between different online communities (along with the even more ripe-for-misinterpretation “policy debates should not appear one-sided“…), as a first (very small) step, I suggest obsoleting the ‘mind-killer’ framing. It’s cute, but ‘politics is hard mode’ works better as a meme to interject into random conversations. ∵:

1. ‘Politics is hard mode’ emphasizes that ‘mind-killing’ (= epistemic difficulty) is quantitative, not qualitative. Some things might instead fall under Very Hard Mode, or under Middlingly Hard Mode…

2. ‘Hard’ invites the question ‘hard for whom?’, more so than ‘mind-killer’ does. We’re all familiar with the fact that some people and some contexts change what’s ‘hard’, so it’s a little less likely we’ll universally generalize about what’s ‘hard.’

3. ‘Mindkill’ connotes contamination, sickness, failure, weakness. ‘Hard Mode’ doesn’t imply that a thing is low-status or unworthy, so it’s less likely to create the impression (or reality) that LessWrongers or Effective Altruists dismiss out-of-hand the idea of hypothetical-political-intervention-that-isn’t-a-terrible-idea.  Maybe some people do want to argue for the thesis that politics is always useless or icky, but if so it should be done in those terms, explicitly — not snuck in as a connotation.

4. ‘Hard Mode’ can’t readily be perceived as a personal attack. If you accuse someone of being ‘mindkilled’, with no context provided, that clearly smacks of insult — you appear to be calling them stupid, irrational, deluded, or similar. If you tell someone they’re playing on ‘Hard Mode,’ that’s very nearly a compliment, which makes your advice that they change behaviors a lot likelier to go over well.

5. ‘Hard Mode’ doesn’t carry any risk of evoking (e.g., gendered) stereotypes about political activists being dumb or irrational or overemotional.

6. ‘Hard Mode’ encourages a growth mindset. Maybe some topics are too hard to ever be discussed. Even so, ranking topics by difficulty still encourages an approach where you try to do better, rather than merely withdrawing. It may be wise to eschew politics, but we should not fear it. (Fear is the mind-killer.)

If you and your co-conversationalists haven’t yet built up a lot of trust and rapport, or if tempers are already flaring, conveying the message ‘I’m too rational to discuss politics’ or ‘You’re too irrational to discuss politics’ can make things worse.  ‘Politics is the mind-killer’ is the mind-killer. At least, it’s a relatively mind-killing way of warning people about epistemic hazards.

‘Hard Mode’ lets you communicate in the style of the Humble Aspirant rather than the Aloof Superior. Try something in the spirit of: ‘I’m worried I’m too low-level to participate in this discussion; could you have it somewhere else?’ Or: ‘Could we talk about something closer to Easy Mode, so we can level up together?’ If you’re worried that what you talk about will impact group epistemology, I think you should be even more worried about how you talk about it.

Union names: Objections and replies

Last month I proposed a new solution to the problem of choosing family names: When you’re starting a family, you and your partners construct and adopt an entirely new middle name, a ‘union name‘ symbolizing your shared life and shared values. If you have children, this union name then becomes their surname.

Many people voiced enthusiasm about the idea, but many also raised interesting concerns and criticisms. I’ve collected them here, with my responses.

Objection 1: It’s better for women to be subordinate, and patrilineal family names help reinforce that. Patriarchal families and societies are happier, stabler, and more successful.

Response: Most women seem to want more autonomy, not less (Pew 2010). That’s very surprising, if autonomy makes them worse off. In fact, that bit of evidence on its own mostly settles the question, until we get strong evidence that women are systematically wrong in this highly specific way about their own interests. We find ourselves in a position similar to an abolitionist trying mightily to refute the claim that Africans love being slaves. Five minutes of talking to people, in a setting where they can talk freely, does the job, and we can move on to more interesting matters.

If there’s compelling evidence to the contrary, I’ll need to see it before I can say much more. On the political claim, too — I need some reason to doubt the surface-level appearance ‘gender equity makes societies more prosperous (Dollar & Gatti 1991; Brummett 2008), healthy (Kawachi et al. 1999), and just (Melander 2005)’.

Objection 2: Union names are too convenient. We should retain an annoying, difficult system, because then it will be more diagnostic of future relationship woes. If people have to fight over whose name gets passed on to the kids, that will ruin relationships that wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, have lasted.

Response: In general, it’s bad policy to make people’s lives worse as a test or trial, unless you are in desperate need for the data that such a test is likely to provide. (And have no other way to acquire such data.) There may be two false assumptions going into the above objection:

(i) Small inconveniences don’t matter. Lots and lots of small inconveniences distributed over a population will add up to have a big impact. And if by chance a lot of them happen in your life at once, they can certainly feel big! People are often under an unusual amount of pressure when they’re deciding whether to have kids or begin a serious long-term relationship. If there’s anything we can do to make their challenges at that stage in life more fun, inspiring, and pleasant, we should jump on the chance.

(ii) If you break up for dumb reasons, you would have broken up eventually anyway. That’s not how relationships work. First, relationships don’t remain at the exact same strength at all times; they can grow in strength. (Or shrink, or oscillate.) Second, failing to overcome a low-level challenge isn’t proof that you would also have failed at all high-level challenges. Bad break-ups can occur just because the wrong thing happened at the wrong time. Life is chaotic, and love’s dynamics are not constrained by what should have happened.

The take-away from this is that we should have compassion and try to make people’s lives better, in small ways and large ones. People don’t deserve solitude or angst just because we find the reason behind their relationship troubles silly.

Also: Union names are challenging. They do help test the strength of people’s commitment. But they do so in a way that tests a relevant skill for romantic and familial relationships. The ability to collaborate, make mutual compromises, come up with imaginative solutions, and find common ground — that’s what union names are training and testing. The ability to be dominant or subordinate, to demand unequal sacrifices, to adhere to out-of-date social norms — that’s what more traditional naming systems are training and testing. I think the former skills are more important for more people.

Objection 3: Naming your children from scratch is hard. Our naming conventions should streamline the process, not add more complexity.

Response: I’d expect social conventions to arise that give people obvious standard choices for surnames — name X after loved one Y, give X common popular name Y, … — so that most people don’t end up inventing names from scratch. That’s how given names currently work, so it’s probably how union names will work too.

As for why we should add even a small amount of work to the process: Human names actually matter. They can have a much bigger and more direct impact on our self-image and social relations than inanimate object names can. If union names encourage people to think and talk more carefully and cooperatively about what identity they want for themselves and their children, great!

Objection 4: Parents can’t be trusted to make up entirely new names for their children. Look how terrible they are just at coming up with decent first names!

Response: It’s certainly a shortcoming of union names that they allow parents to screw up their kids’ lives in more drastic ways. However, if we have mechanisms in place for keeping parents from choosing seriously socially harmful first names for kids, then those mechanisms should generalize to socially harmful surnames.

(In fact, giving parents more leeway might force bureaucrats to take this problem more seriously and put more laws on the books. So the end result could well be fewer irresponsible name choices.)

Objection 5: Giving people so much control makes it likely they’ll later be less happy with it. If you give them less freedom, they’ll grow attached to their choice and rationalize it more readily.

Response: Entirely true! In general, giving people more freedom lets them select more personalized options, but also makes them more indecisive, anxious, and likely to regret their decision. See Dan Gilbert’s excellent talk on synthetic happiness:

I accept this as a cost, but I think it’s worth it for all the advantages union names confer.

Ultimately, we’ll just have to try them and see how they work. If binding families together in a more free, egalitarian, imaginative, and collaborative way doesn’t end up having as many (foreseen or unforeseen) benefits as one might suspect, then a much simpler, more automated system may turn out to be superior.

If people really just don’t care that much about surnames, then you could, for example, flip a coin to decide whose name gets taken on by everyone else. But my suspicion is that trivializing family bonds in that way isn’t the best solution available. (For instance, the parent who randomly has to change eir name may not be the one in the better position to bear the associated social costs.)

Objection 6: So why not just use a coin flip to decide which surname the children get, but let the parents have completely different names? Or leave the parents’ names intact, but use some arbitrary system to assign surnames to the children? For example, you could give the first child the alphabetically earliest surname of its parents, the second child the second-earliest surname, then keep cycling through.

Response: Coin flips and arbitrary conventions are admirably fair. But they still bear the cost of making the whole process seem meaningless and impersonal. Why not humanize and personalize our naming conventions, if we’ve found a relatively easy and simple way to do so?

I’m also wary of systems that give different surnames to the children, even randomly. First, I don’t want to encourage parents, even a little bit, to choose how many children they have based on an implicit desire to pass on their name, or on an implicit desire to equalize the distribution of names, or what-have-you. People’s decision-making is capricious and destructive enough without society going out of its way to distract them with shiny gold Name coins.

Second, I don’t want to factionalize families. These proposals all have the disadvantage of frequently leaving one family member excluded from an important symbolic tie that binds the rest of the family together. Compared to other systems, unity names are just what they sound like. They encourage familial unity more than any alternative does. They create a symbol that ties everyone in the group together, with no one left out in the cold, favored over the rest, or cut off into separate tribes; and they do so without any reliance on pointless infighting or dominance hierarchies.

My own parents went with: ‘The kids take on the father’s surname, but the mother’s name stays unchanged.’ In some ways that’s progress, but it’s still sexist and awkward. It means my mother’s forever cut off from the rest of the family. It means we can’t all rally together under one banner, lest we incur dissonance. It’s a small thing, but some small things matter.

Objection 7: Your system requires partners to come to an agreement on challenging, highly personal issues with many degrees of freedom. That’s a recipe for disaster.

Response: It’s true that union names demand some maturity and willingness to compromise in order to work. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. The alternative is to make our naming conventions unequal (so one person gets final say) or arbitrary (so nobody gets final say).

That said, if two partners are completely unable to agree on a single name, they can still fall back on creating a union name that’s a hyphenated version of their two top choices. This may not be ideal, but it’s one of a variety of compromises the system allows. And since it gets replaced by the next generation’s union name (rather than merged with it), it doesn’t run into the problem of accumulating more and more names over time, and doesn’t become unmanageably large.

Objection 8: What about single parents?

Response: For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume a parent who has never been in any unions. (Though if ey has, that doesn’t solve this problem; you probably don’t want to falsely suggest that your child is in the same family as an unrelated ex of yours.) So the parent’s name is A B.

The simplest answer would be to just name the child C B, like most English speakers do today. But that will introduce confusion, because — assuming siblings are more common than single parents in this union-name-using community — people will initially think that A B and C B are siblings, rather than parent and child.

So I recommend sticking with the union system, and having the parent make up a new name D, change eir name to A D B, and name the child C D.

This has the advantage of allowing you to later ‘adopt’ a spouse Y Z into the same union — say, if you marry someone when the kid is still very young who ends up acting as the child’s caregiver. That new spouse will then take on the middle name D, becoming Y D Z.

If you tried to ‘adopt’ someone into you and your child’s family name without constructing a new union name, then you’d end up having to either: (a) look silly by doubling your own name and becoming A B B to match your spouse Y B Z; (b) look like your spouse’s child by remaining A B and having your spouse become Y B Z; or (c) have your spouse completely change surnames to Y B or Y Z B, which abandons the union name system and all its special advantages.

Just sticking to the union system in all cases seems easier, once it’s well-established. A family with one parent is just as real a family as any other, and deserves just as much to be commemorated with whatever rituals a society uses to honor familial ties.

Objection 9: Your system doesn’t allow traditionalists to pass on the torch of their name with any staying power. All trace of our names will be erased within two generations. That means that legacy names like ‘John Jones VII’ aren’t just discouraged; they’re impossible.

Response: This is true, but I’m not sure it matters very much. Names should be first and foremost about the individuals named. If those names refer to some historical event or lineage, that should be because the lineage is of unusual personal significance to the individual, not because the individual has been pressured into conforming to an arbitrary tradition. It’s a good thing if union names encourage people to construct their own identities as they build their deepest personal bonds and carry out the project of their lives, rather than encouraging people to base their identities primarily on the echoes and expectations of distant ancestors.

File:Arms of Great Britain in Scotland (1714-1801).svg

That said, union names don’t forbid ancestral naming traditions. If you really want to preserve your name across two or more generations, you can use an alternating system: Sam Boutros Ghali can beget Uma Ghali Boutros, who begets Shashi Boutros Ghali…. You’d just need to start families with people willing to take on one of your traditional names.

As for the impossibility of giving your child your exact name under this system… that’s definitely a feature, not a bug. Union names are a relatively poor choice if domineering creepiness or ambiguity are the things you want from your naming system.

Objection 10: But doesn’t that just reintroduce the problem of one partner getting to impose eir will on the other?

Response: Yes. This will be possible on any nonrandom system. Selfishness and inequality happen in relationships. Union names don’t make it impossible for partners to pressure each other into things they don’t want to do. Union names just make inegalitarian solutions unnecessary, and make the products of name negotiations more interesting and meaningful.

Objection 11: How do we tell ordinary middle names apart from union names?

Response: Well, we could stop giving children middle names so much. If we unambiguously use them only for unions, then we have a very convenient way of knowing people’s relationship history at a glance. Perhaps most people will be satisfied expressing their naming ideas through union names themselves, shrinking the desire for other bonus names.

Then again, maybe some ambiguity is good. Middle names add noise that creates a bit more privacy for people.

Another solution is to have an optional convention for marking the transition from personal names to union / sur-names in one’s full name. For instance, although this wouldn’t be required, you could inject the word ‘of’ before the first union name, if you really want to be clear about your name’s meaning. If personal middle names ever die out, though, this convention should die with it.

Objection 12: Union names make people think of their identities as tied to their partners’ and children’s identities. That’s unhealthy and/or unrealistic.

Response: I disagree. Our identities are tied to our loved ones. They shape our experiences, and draw out of us a specific persona. Both of those factors affect our personality on a deep level. It’s healthy to have some space from one’s family, but it’s also healthy to recognize how indebted we are to our friends, family, and community for who we are.

Hiding from your environment is not rediscovering what’s Authentically You; it’s refusing to acknowledge the part of the Authentic You that’s ineradicably bound up in the outside world.

Objection 13: Union names give parents total control over their children’s names, and very little control over their own names. The reverse makes far more sense. Children should pick their names as a rite of passage, reinforcing their autonomy and self-determination and discouraging parents from thinking of their children as possessions or works of art.

Response: This is a good objection! I do worry about all naming systems that simply impose the parents’ will on the next generation. Children should have a say in their identity — by default, not just if they go out of their way to buck social pressure. But they also need to be called something before they’re old enough to self-name. Some sort of compromise is needed.

My personal suggestion is to encourage children to legally change their first name when they reach a certain age. If this coming-of-age ritual generally leaves the surname intact, then it will remain consistent with the union name system.

I’ll keep expanding the above list as people keep having new ideas!

Solve surnames with union names

Proposal: When you start a family, make up a new name, a union name. This name goes right before you and your partner’s/s’ different surnames, which are left unchanged. If you have children, this union name is then their surname.

… And we’re done. That’s the entire idea. You can probably just stop reading now.

OK, maybe I should say a little more about why this system is such an improvement on the status quo. What are the problems with other surname-swapping paradigms? What specific advantages do union names offer?


Problems with existing systems

These are legion, so I’ll break them up into several categories. First, problems with meeting in the middle:

  • Combining names via hyphens isn’t sustainable. Mr. Gramolini-Bronkhorst marries Ms. Bennett-Moore and becomes Mr. Gramolini-Bronkhorst-Bennett-Moore. Next generation, it grows to 5 or more names. TERRIFYING.
  • Combining names frequently looks and sounds ugly. Surname phonology is not generally people’s main criterion in selecting mates.
  • Smushing surnames together is cute (Nilsen + Pattel = Paltsen) but often unpronounceable, and makes reconstructing the original names very difficult.
  • There’s still some lingering asymmetry and uncertainty in deciding whose name goes first. This isn’t trivial, because if you get to keep your name in roughly the same alphabetical position, you take on less of the social and professional cost of switching surnames.

Problems with having one partner switch to the other’s surname:

  • Making the woman always switch surnames is sexist and dehumanizing.
  • … Why even force people to have the discussion? Squeezing relationships into this asymmetric mold introduces pointless tension and conflict.

Problems with surname-changing in general:

  • Making either person switch surnames can harm careers and hinder social networking.
  • Making either person switch surnames can scramble bureaucracies — making medical records hard to find, for instance.
  • Surname-switching is extra confusing if you go through multiple partnerships/marriages.
  • Surname-switching is extra confusing if you find a new partner while you already have kids. Do your kids switch too?

Problems with leaving names completely unchanged:

  • If neither you nor your partner switch surnames, it’s hard to figure out what your child should be named.
  • If you just make up an arbitrary last name for your child, it won’t have a name in common with you, which makes identifying relatives (e.g., for legal guardian purposes) needlessly difficult.

Besides, all the existing systems are just boring. Why not have surnames actually bear some direct relevance to the individuals who have them?


Advantages of union names

An invented example of how union names work: The Fairburn/Alexandros family tree.

Symbolism. Union names retain the ritual advantages of conventional marital name-changing. Unions do involve a name alteration, so the significance of the event is branded into your identity in a stable, concrete, visible way. At the same time, people who don’t want to change their names at all are free to skip that step and just use union names for their kids’ surnames. This sacrifices some of the system’s advantages, but a flexible system is a good system.

Moreover, it says something worth saying about consent, mutualism, and moral equality if the same name change is undergone by all partners, rather than the change being asymmetrically imposed on one partner by the other.

A name also has more personal significance if it’s lovingly crafted by partners, rather than being an arbitrary historical relic.

Creativity. You have more freedom to make mellifluous (and super badass) names for your kids — and for yourself — since you aren’t stuck with an inherited surname you have to work around.

Flexibility. Unions names are accessible to lesbian, gay, and queer couples; to polyamorous unions; and to serial unions.

Informativeness. Children and their parents always share at least one name, and in a systematic fashion that makes it easy to trace family trees if you aren’t missing any generations.

If you’ve had multiple independent unions, and don’t want to re-use the same union name for each, it’s easy to tell what order the unions came in (left-to-right yields chronological order), and also easy to tell which children are associated with which partnerships.

If you’re looking at a bunch of names in a family reunion roster, a Facebook thread, or an address book, it’s also easy to discern their familial relationships at a glance, assuming no incestuous unions. People sharing last names are siblings. People sharing middle names are spouses. And if Qiáng’s middle name is the same as George’s surname, then George is Qiáng’s child. (It’s a deliberate feature that sibling and spousal relationships are symmetric, while parental ones are asymmetric.)

As I conceive them, surnames will be more public and professional and official — hence you have them from birth to death, unless you go out of your way to change ’em — while union names would be more private and personal. A small family unit where the parents have union name Argestes (and therefore the children have Argestes as surname) might refer to itself as ‘clan Argestes’ or ‘the Argestes family’ in Christmas cards, whereas on census forms or medical documents it will just stick to individual surnames. It’s unfortunate that this system is very different from our current one, so it isn’t the easiest to transition into. But I think it’s the simplest option available, and the most sustainable.

(Edit: See Union Names: Objections and Replies for a follow-up.)

Listen and judge: An interview with Marwa Berro

I recently participated in a meeting of ex-Muslims in Washington, D.C., attended by Richard Dawkins, Ron Lindsay, and a number of other leaders of the secular movement. One of the most eloquent and passionate speakers there — rivaling Dawkins — was Marwa Berro, a writer, activist, and philosopher who blogs at Between A Veil And A Dark Place. At the prompting of event organizer Alishba Zarmeen, I asked Marwa about her views on Islam, cultural pluralism, and the future of secularism.

Bensinger: Marwa, you’ve written some really eye-opening critiques of Islamic culture. But you’ve also been quite critical of other critics of Islam. Do you see yourself as a Muslim? In dialogues about Islam, do you find yourself identifying more with Muslim voices, or with non-Muslim ones?

Berro: This question is to me not one of what I write about, the content and subject-matter of my work, but of what spurs that sort of work, a question of personal identity. I identify strongly as both ex-Muslim and Muslimish (the specific brand of Muslimish being atheist Muslim). One is a negative identity (ie, a descriptor of what I am not) and the other is a positive identity (a descriptor of something I am).  I think there are some potentially confusing things going on with that, so let me explain.

First, the identity of ex-Muslim: I refer to Islam, something I’ve rejected, to personally describe myself. While it might be confusing, I find this incredibly meaningful.

Because in shedding Islamic doctrine I have not freed myself of its influence on me. I can remove the hijab as clothing but I can’t so easily remove its decade-and-a-half influence on my body and mind. Its residual effects live within me in the form of memories, concepts, questions and challenges related to body image, bodily autonomy, self-worth, gender identity, sexuality and objectification. They live with me as active, probing, burning matters. They are internal struggles I bear myself through and external battles I commit my voice and pen and heart to.

They are the smallest and most everyday of things: My neck exploding in freckles this summer for the first time in my life: how strange it is to see your 24-year-old body do a thing it has never done, how alarming that so simple a capacity in your very skin could be released with a catalyst as common as the sun, how appalling that it has never had the chance to do so, and how the questions and emotions bubble up  from this. Every experience of mine that is new, joyous, painful, meaningful in some way or another resonates in a deep and compelling way with the life I’ve lived, the doctrine and culture that socialized me.

I am not just non-religious. I have shed the skin of a certain religion, and it was a clutching, shaping, smothering, burning, heavy skin, and my being non-religious is defined by pushing myself out of it, and it always will be.

I also identify as an atheist Muslim because I strongly claim my cultural belonging, and much of my culture is intertwined with, inextricable from, Islamic practices and beliefs. I am an atheist, a humanist, a secularist, yes, but much of what informs my thought and my work, and especially much of what moves me and gives me joy, comes from the heart of the Arab Mediterranean. It is a lens, if you will, for the way in which I experience the world.

Bensinger: So you see yourself as culturally Muslim or Muslimish, but not as religiously Muslim. I have vastly less experience with Islam’s culture than with its doctrines; how has that background shaped your perspective?

Berro: I’m an artist. In my day-to-day life, I write and teach fiction, and I am working on a book of interconnected short stories about my hometown Beirut, and the characters that live in my head and whose lives I spend time and words on have rich, complex, dynamic religious identities.  I watch news reports in Arabic on YouTube and yearn for the tongue. My head snaps around almost unbidden and my heart skips a beat if ever I hear somebody speak Arabic on the street here in the American Midwest. I’ve retained some traditionally Islamic practices, particularly hygienic ones, that I find to be valuable. I still celebrate Eid when Eid comes around too, in much the same way atheists from Christian families still celebrate Christmas—it has marked for me, twice every year, a time of food and family and love and friendship and commitment. I cook Levantine food, halal food, alongside my primary partner’s mother’s amazing pork chops. My sensory comforts are all from home: the sound and smell of the sea, warm weather. I still wear the same multicolored scarves with intricate designs that I used as hijabs for many years. I have a way of speech, a warmness and candor about me that is specifically Arab, because we are spontaneous, welcoming, open people. Strangely, even though I am a particularly amusical person, the poetry of the Husseini dirges during Ashouraa, their hypnotic chest-tapping grief, moves me to this day. I consider the story of Hussein to be an epic tale that, rendered in poetry in the Iraqi dialect, gives me a stronger feeling than reading epic tales like Beowulf or the Iliad ever did and ever could. I consider the stories of the prophets, and the tales of death and redemption and aid from angels tied to Hezbollah resistance culture in the South of Lebanon too, to be the equivalent of folktales that can inspire and inform new art, new fiction.

I love all of these things about my culture. I know my culture. I claim my culture, and speak of it from a position of belonging, not from the position of being a defector. It is true that I am not a Muslim—I am, however, Muslimish. Leaving Islam does not entail a separation from the cultural, societal, and political issues that have always shaped my very existence, whose intricacies I have delved in intellectually in order to find out who and what I am.

And when I go to sleep at night, it is always with the hope that I will dream of Beirut.

Bensinger: Given your background, Marwa, I can understand why your writing focuses on issues in Muslim communities. Still, looking at the hostility Western media often directs at Islam, don’t you think it’s unfair to single out this one religion for special criticism? Why not treat Islam the same as any other religion?

Berro: I do not believe Islam is singled out for criticism. If anything, there is less of a willingness to approach Islam with the same force and confidence that other religions are criticized with. The existence of a specific term demonizing the critique of Islam but no other term demonizing the critique of any other ideology or religion is very telling.

Bensinger: I assume you mean “Islamophobia“.

Berro: Yes. If the question is why I criticize Islam to the exclusion of other religions in my blogging, then the answer is simple.

I know more about it and can speak to it, and it is personally important to me. I can only speak about that which I am informed of. Likewise, I can speak best and most compellingly about that which touches me most.

The second part of the answer is that there is something unique about Islam. Islam does differ from other religions in crucial ways that do influence how it is to be dealt with. I have a blog post about that here.

Bensinger: In your view, what can moderate Muslims do to better combat extremism?

Berro: Value diversity. You interpret Islam in one way, and others interpret it in another, and others will interpret it in yet another, seventy times seven times. Thus concentrate less on defending the ‘true’ Islam because very, very few people are going to be talking about the same thing you are when you say ‘Islam’, and more on defending the right to believe and practice freely without imposing your view on others or infringing on their similar rights.

Emphasize that freedom of religion is a right, no matter how it is practiced or interpreted. That freedom is one that you yourself, as a Muslim, should value above all else.

I understand that you believe your faith to be a common good, a truth, a meaningful and enlightening thing, and that you hate seeing it denigrated either through misuse or misunderstanding. Perhaps consider that the best way to prevent this is to help create a world where nobody will have reason to denigrate your faith, because nobody will, in the name of your faith, commit the human rights violations that you consider to be misuse or misunderstanding of your faith. Recognize that those who kill or maim or hurt to defend the name of your faith do so because they don’t believe it is a human right for others to choose not to follow it or to flout its rules or beliefs.

Emphasize that human right.

Value diversity. Value choice.

Bensinger: What can we do to empower ex-Muslim and liberal Muslim critics of traditional Islam?

Berro: Listen to us. Enable our voices by hosting them on mainstream media platforms. Help make the ex-Muslim voice and the liberal Muslim voice normalized, because it is unfortunately the case that these voices are considered inauthentic and thus discounted because we are not viewed as Muslims or ‘true’ Muslims. This happens in the West sometimes because of a fear, I think, of cultural appropriation, of being racist.

But here’s the thing. There is so much talk of what we are not. We are not meant for your consumption, we are not your orientalist dream. Clamorous are the voices that say this. But tenuous is the discourse that is willing to discuss what is ours, what we can have, what can be fought for on our behalf if we do not have the means to fight for it ourselves, if it is not already granted to us by our cultural norms.

The discourse surrounding cultural appropriation powerfully rests upon the simple concept, acknowledged by many and addressed to the white West, that when you view what is ours through the lens of your own privileged understanding, you bar us from agency and choice and self-determination.

But when does the fear of cultural appropriation blend into the dangers of cultural relativism?

When it starts to enable our belonging to a cultural tradition above our individual identities. Except that we are human subjects, and our cultures belong to us more than we belong to them.

It becomes dangerous when talk of what we are not enables the delegitimization of our voices when we try to speak of what we are, what we can have. When suddenly we become defectors, apostates, and our discourse is discounted as imperialist Western brainwashing.

The irony is that we are not given that power, of the agential voice. We are not considered to be appropriating Western values when we endorse and adopt them, because to suggest that a brown woman can take Western ideas and turn them into her own brand of feminism and agency is unthinkable. Instead our discourse is thought of being a flimsy vapid imitation of the West. It comes as a surprise to some Westerners if and when we end up educated enough to teach white children their own languages, if our English is impeccable, our diction refined, our knowledge of Western identity and gender politics well-formulated.

And once accepted, this somehow discredits us as brown women, as people from Muslim cultures. We are discounted as inauthentic commentators on what was always-and-every issue governing our socialization, our actualization, our politicization because we break out of the bounds of our cultural dictates in doing so.

And when we are discounted by our cultural leaders and spaces, a fear of cultural appropriation bars us from having a platform from which to speak elsewhere.

This stems from a fear of judging. Is it then possible that in order to not judge, people tend not to listen?

So listen to us. Listen to us, understand us, ask us questions, let us teach you about our religious backgrounds so that you too can become informed commentators and help us dispel the erroneous and focus on effective solutions.

Help make it a normal thing, a universally acknowledged and accepted thing for an ex-Muslim to speak about Islam and be considered a valuable and informed commentator.

We need your help in being heard.

Bensinger: Why is help needed? Why do I hear so few people talking like this?

Berro: We are black sheep. We are rejected by many of the people and organizations that socialized us. Those of us who are public are accused of being imperialist tools of the West, of getting paychecks from Zionist organizations, of being part of a larger agenda of globalization and other such ludicrous nonsense.

Also, and this is sickening, horrifying, the women among us are often subjected to the crudest forms of misogynistic threats of rape and violence for daring to advocate for human rights. Our causes are routinely reduced to a desire to legalize sin and fornication and lewdness (all imagined evils) and any humanistic values we endorse are brushed aside as a mere front.

Many of us are also in hiding, and bear significant social and material costs for being what we are. Apostasy bears a great social burden in Muslim societies. At the very least, we are shunned, outcast, disowned if we were to go public. Others of us simply cannot. We live in places with such inescapable codes of living that we are not free to choose a nonreligious life and must continue to practice rituals of faith as though we believed, and are thus forced to suppress ourselves, and live a lie.

Others who are less lucky suffer violence in brutal ways as the recompense for sin. In many areas of the Muslim world, death is called for as the just punishment for apostasy. In other places, death or brutalization as punishment for apostasy is not technically legal but is overlooked when it does happen. The acceptance of it is surprisingly (or not) mainstream, as this Pew Poll shows.

I will quickly here note that both I and some close friends have suffered unjustifiable violence at the hands of our own families in response to perceived ‘sin’ we committed.

And for those of us who are capable of speaking—our voices aren’t loud enough on their own to cast light onto the invisible, in-the-closet apostate from Islam that has no recourse and is trapped in a way of life they cannot adhere to with good conscience and find too dangerous or costly to leave.

Bensinger: What about voices from outside the Muslim world? What can people from more secularized cultures do to effectively criticize religion?

Berro: I view the issue of secularism to be one of practical political philosophy, and when it comes to practical political philosophy, I am a moral consequentialist who emphasizes procedure. Based on that, these are my suggestions:

  • Ask yourself why you are criticizing religion. What is your purpose, goal? What valuable thing are you trying to achieve in criticizing a religion? And then line up the manner in which you critique religion with those goals. Look at what you’re doing already and ask yourself if it serves those goals and how. For instance, questions to be posed could be: How would using racializing, generalizing, stereotyping, alienating, or aggressive language achieve any of those goals? Conversely, how would being too afraid of being accused of xenophobia or bigotry to make an honest, compelling, no-nonsense critique serve those goals?
  • Stop making the mistake of separating the practices and beliefs of followers of a religion from the religion itself. That’s a cop-out that detracts from honest criticism of the ways in which religious doctrine informs, influences, and contributes to violence and human rights violations committed by religious people.
  • Be less concerned with the image of a religion, and what the ‘real’ or ‘true’ version of a religion is, and more about dealing with the real-world consequences of the actions of its followers. People are more valuable than ideas. People’s lives and wellbeing and freedom and safety are more valuable than defending or condemning an abstract concept. Here’s a hint: Nobody agrees on what the ‘true’ version of a religion is. It does not exist.
  • Don’t treat religions as monoliths. They are not monoliths. They are the incredibly varying beliefs and practices of their followers, and in order to effectively discuss them, you must discuss them according to their semantic content and their material effects. You must not equate them with each other or reduce them to either their most positive aspects or their most negative aspects. You must not lump them all together and treat them the same. Islam is different from other religions in many ways, and those differences need to be addressed when we think about how to discuss Islam. You will not fix a problem by ignoring its particular identifying characteristics.

Here are some concrete suggestions I’ve given for discussing Islam in particular.

Bensinger: Why does the issue of secularism matter? What does it mean for a society to be secular, or for an individual to be a secularist?

Berro: As commonly understood, a secular society is one in which religious institutions and the state are separate, neither interfering with the functioning of the other. It relates directly to freedom, the freedom to conduct yourself and believe what you will, insofar as that does not infringe upon the freedom of others.

It matters because societies are pluralistic. Because there is a large variety of personally fulfilling ways of living decent human lives, and no single one of these can be mandated at the level of the state. It matters because the followers of certain belief systems do want to be allowed to bring their own codes of living into public spaces where other people live.

Many religions tend to want to dictate an objective, universal code of living and belief system for humanity in general, and if they are allowed to pass legislature at the state level that enforce their particular system of belief upon others, then they will be infringing upon the the fundamental human right of self-determination.

It can range from less dangerous to more dangerous things: A comparatively benign example is holding prayer in public or state schools even if the children do not belong to that religion or do not desire to be brought into it and do not wish to pray to a god they don’t believe in or in a manner that they don’t subscribe to. More extreme is sentencing a woman who has had sex to 100 lashes because in a particular religion it is considered immoral to have sex outside of marriage.

A particular problem I’ve noticed when considering personal autonomy and freedom of religion is the tendency to discount religious influence on legislature because it is not explicitly presented as such. For instance, my home country Lebanon, which endorses no state religion and considers itself secular, has a slew of laws that are not justified in explicitly religious terms but that only exist because of religious influences on the culture. For instance, a law condemning ‘unnatural’ sex acts and thus used to arrest LGBTQ individuals. Or the repeated vetoing of a law criminalizing domestic violence based on the justification that it threatens the closeness of familial bonds.

Thus the various influences and justifications for legislature must be examined, along with whether they are based in a particular worldview that infringes upon the rights of others and is inconsistent with the existence of others. That should be the standard for whether or not legislature is secular: is it consistent with the existence of various worldviews given that no human rights are being violated?

Bensinger: The Washington, D.C. event was the first large-scale Muslimish meet-up of its kind. What did you think of it?

Berro: It was a life-changing experience for me.

Firstly, because of community:

One thing that apostates can often be heard voicing is ‘I thought I was alone.’

The concept of apostasy is so demonized and unthinkable that it sometimes is difficult for those bearing its social costs to consider that there might be others like them, a community, that they can reach out to, talk to, support and feel supported by.

I’ve been collaborating and sharing experience and insight and dreams and hopes with an online network of apostates in North America for the past few months, but the meetup in DC at the end of this past September was a thing of joy and splendor for me. I felt a sense of community, belonging, solidarity, of encompassing and welcoming that I have not felt in a long time. These were people with similar struggles, similar experiences of adversity, similar intellectual journeys and interests. I could speak my language again. I could refer to specific cultural things, have inside jokes, that other people understood and we could discuss them in open, versatile ways, without fear of being quieted or punished or being accused of an imagined crime called ‘blasphemy’.

Because our pains were similar, we could understand and comfort each other in unique ways. Because our joys, too, were things we had in common, as well as the experiences of leaving Islamic rituals behind and experiencing new things like intimate relationships, the sun on our hair, swimming in public, eating bacon for the first time as adults. That it was forbidden to us for so long made it sacred to us in a way that we probably would be at loss to explain to others.

I was also struck, and really am almost ashamed of how surprising this was for me, by how respectful and nonjudgmental everyone around me was. I have never been utterly surrounded by people from strong Muslim cultures without feeling controlled or judged or manipulated in some way, especially by men. But I was there with my primary partner and we were at a raging afterparty with booze and cuddles and romance all around and I did not feel a shred of shaming or misogyny directed at my immodest dress and conduct. It was heartwarming and nearly brought me to tears.

Secondly, because of the amazing amount of goodwill and human kindness we were given.

We met with prominent leaders of secular organizations nationally and worldwide. Present were Richard Dawkins, Edwina Rogers (Secular Coalition for America and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Ronald A Lindsay (Center for Inquiry), Richard Haynes (Atheist Nexus), and Jennifer Beahan (also CFI, in collaboration with Muslimish, which is now an official chapter of CFI).

Leaders from these organizations came to meet us in DC specifically to discuss the ways in which they could help us. How they could support us, what they could offer us. How the larger secular community as a whole could support the Muslim apostate cause.

It was made very clear that we belonged, that they considered our plight crucial, and that we were to be welcomed as an integral part of the secular community.

Also, and I say this because of the stigma attached to apostasy and its inherent voicelessness, it is incredible how we were listened to.

We were not spoken at. We were not given terms or conditions. We were offered several avenues of help, and given suggestions for ways in which we could be supported, and then we were asked.

We were asked what we thought could be done for us. We were asked what aspects of the apostate condition we thought were most crucial, and what ideas we had for addressing us.

Although we were well over 100 strong in the room, we were all given opportunity to ask questions of the secular leaders before us, and give them comments and feedback.

Bensinger: What were the most important issues and ideas you encountered there?

Berro: Some specific issues we talked about were:

  • The unique situation of women from Muslim cultures, because they are the largest sufferers under Islamism, and enabling the voices of ex-Muslim women, and broadcasting their experiences. Since then, a project called the Ex-Muslim Women’s Network has gone through several planning stages.
  • The situation of apostates in Muslim-majority countries, and strategies for creating places of freethought and skeptical inquiry where they feel welcome that are safe, undetectable, and sustainable.
  • The situation of seekers of asylum and refugees who happen to be atheists or apostates, who often lack sponsors or legal support from secular organizations, and thus have to be sponsored by religious organizations such as the YMCA.
  • The situation of reconciling positive cultural elements with a lack of faith, methods for creating families and communities that retain culture while shedding the religious doctrine and terminology.
  • The situation of apostates in the West, who often are utterly socially constrained, bringing them awareness that they are not alone, and helping them leave suppressive home situations.

Bensinger: I found the meeting moving and inspiring as well. For that matter, this discussion has given me a lot of new hope, new understanding, and a renewed sense of urgency. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself, Marwa. Is there a last word you’d like to share with people reading this? Any new projects, or ways for us to follow your work?

Berro: I’d like to conclude with a shout-out to EXMNA. Since our DC meetup, the Ex-Muslims of North America has launched the Ex-Muslim Blogs, the world’s first single website that acts as a unified platform for ex-Muslim thought in all its rich variety and insight. I think this an incredibly revolutionary and important endeavor, and am proud to have Between A Veil and A Dark Place hosted there; it is the beginning of the normalization of the ex-Muslim voice. And finally, I’d like to mention that I’m collecting stories and experiences from ex-Muslim women or women who have been influenced in one way or another by Muslim societies for a new guest-blog series at my website, the Stories from Ex-Muslim Women. Feel free to query me at

Should secularists have man-free events?

This is a shorter version of a Center for Inquiry blog post.

women-onlyInspired by UNIFI and other campus groups’ activities, the Secular Alliance at Indiana University has been debating the advantages and the risks of hosting women-only events. I think some of the arguments raised by both sides will be useful and relevant to other groups seeking to reach out to different demographics and combat internal inequalities.

In the hopes of encouraging more widespread discussion of ways to concretely improve our communities, I raise four objections to the idea of an exclusive women’s group, and four responses.

A women’s group serves no purpose.

Having smaller meetings for secularists with specific shared interests or backgrounds can be very rewarding for those members. It’s a fact that women in our society tend to have a number of common experiences that men don’t, including encounters with religious strictures and expectations that don’t apply to men. If a women’s group helps members talk more freely about these experiences – and/or is just a crazy amount of fun – then it has a purpose. Statistically, men and women also tend to have different talents, interests, and beliefs, which means that diversifying in one way can help you diversify in many others.

Whether this is the best solution may vary from group to group, but most groups would probably benefit from at least talking the option over. Even groups with a well-balanced membership and leadership could benefit from having a women’s subgroup – because it erodes low-grade gender bias, for example. As Virginia Valian notes, men tend to interact with women as they do with inferiors, avoiding eye contact when the woman is speaking and taking for granted that they aren’t in leadership positions. In a 1975 study by Don Zimmerman and Candice West, men were found to interrupt women in conversation over twenty times as often as women interrupted men. Having a space for women to talk can counteract that effect. It can also draw attention to the disparity, making women more likely to speak out when they’re talked over or dismissed.

Banning men from certain events is discriminatory and alienates members.

One way of expressing this objection is to demand that if women get their own events from which men are barred, then men should also get events that exclude women.

But some forms of exclusion can be OK, even if others are not. A group that excludes women is not equivalent to one that excludes men, for the simple reason that we live in a culture that heavily privileges men over women. Creating events that increase the autonomy of men at the expense of women reinforces that disparity, whereas creating events that increase the autonomy of women at the expense of men does not, and may even erode certain inequalities.

Consider a group that was only for black Americans, to give them a safe space to share their experiences with racism without having to explain or justify things to people of other ethnic and cultural backgrounds. This might not be a completely unproblematic idea, but it at least is a lot easier to see the justification and use for such a group than it is to see the justification for a whites-only group. Similarly, a group that was only for gay men (excluding, e.g., straight allies) could be justified without appeal to essentialism or intrinsic superiority (and without endorsing groups that ban gay men!), simply by noting that our culture imposes different expectations and experiences on gay men and that there may be a need for people of this demographic to express themselves in a place where they feel relatively safe, supported, and understood. If these two sorts of groups make sense, then a group that’s only for women also makes sense.

A women’s group presupposes a clear gender dichotomy.

Not every freethinker or humanist identifies exclusively or exhaustively as a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’. How will they know whether they’re welcome at a women-only event? Genderqueer, intersex, etc. college students are likely to already be suffering as a result of our society’s mania with fitting everyone into ready-made boxes. The last thing we want is to make them feel that they have to ‘pick a side’ or explicitly justify their gender identity (which may differ from their gender expression, their genital sex, their chromosome line-up, etc.) to a bunch of near-strangers, just to participate in some light recreation and enlightening discussion.

This is probably the biggest problem with a women’s group. Even if it seems unlikely that someone who shows up to one of the women’s events and doesn’t identify as a man but ‘looks too male’ might be mistreated, the bare possibility may cause some of our members to feel anxious, confused, excluded, or erased. Adding more groups (like an LGBT one) might help in this respect, but it wouldn’t totally solve the problem, because it would still depend on forcing people to figure out the vagaries of their personal identity before they can come play Jenga or go horseback riding. Creating a group for ‘non-men’ rather than for ‘women’ would be more inclusive, but it doesn’t totally eliminate the problem, because there will always be people whose status as a ‘man’ is undefined or who fall outside the group only as a technicality.

I think the only adequate response to this objection is to talk about it and hear what individual members think. We can’t eliminate every possible way we could offend anybody in advance, before we’ve actually talked things over face-to-face. But we can raise the issue in a sensitive and open-minded way, letting everyone express why they think it’s a great idea, or why it troubles them, or how they’d like the events to be framed. There’s no way we’ll please everyone, but at least people will feel they’ve been heard.

If we end up affirming the need for events like this in spite of their dependence on defined genders, I expect it will be because we live in a culture where it’s simply a fact that ‘women’, as conceived by the masses and by cultural authorities, are a reified class. You don’t need to erase bisexuals or essentialize ‘gayness’ or ‘maleness’ in order to build a group responding to the fact that gay men are a special group defined and disadvantaged by our culture. And you don’t need to erase mixed-race people or essentialize ‘blackness’ in order to build a group responding to the fact that black people are a special group defined and oppressed by our existing culture.

Similarly, a group for women can be defined in terms of the sorts of experiences being treated as ‘a woman’ inevitably involved in our society. Even if you don’t strongly identify as a ‘woman’, if you feel you’ve had those experiences, you’re welcome to join the group. Pretending socially constructed groups don’t exist won’t make them go away, and it certainly won’t alleviate any of the inequalities that attend their construction.

Three challenges for Atheism+

This is an excerpt of a Secular Alliance at Indiana University blog post.

From the beginning, when atheos meant ‘impious’ or ‘profane’, atheism has been about more than just whether you happen to believe in gods. Both the godly and the not-so-godly seem drawn to viewing atheism as something of much deeper import. Hence few are surprised when the ‘New Atheists’ feel no need to limit themselves to sitting in a circle and discussing how very much they all lack belief in Izanagi and Huitzilopochtli. Reconceiving atheism as a symptom or symbol of scientific skepticism, these New Atheists find just as much to rebuke in godless dogmas like Stalinism, and in all forms of caustic unreason, as they do in the worship of incorporeal intelligences.

Once atheism starts to connote anti-dogmatism, rifts will inevitably emerge as non-theists disagree internally about which ideas are unreasonable, are ‘dogmas’. Sometimes these rifts lead to healthy debate, personal growth, and a renewed commitment to clear thinking. Whether ‘Atheism+’ will go down that path depends crucially on how its early proponents frame the discussion.

Atheism+ is a very new proposal by Jen McCreight and the Freethought Blogs community. Just as New Atheism was implicitly atheism plus skepticism, ‘Atheism+’ is atheism plus skepticism plus humanism. There are a number of different reasons for this coinage.

1. The new new atheists want to persuade other open-minded atheists to apply their skepticism to social biases and prejudices, not just to supernatural claims.

2. They want a banner under which to coordinate discussion and activism concerning important social ills. Many atheists (including ones who dislike the label ‘humanist‘) already have an interest in these topics, and want to create a safe space that explicitly allows and encourages skeptical discourse outside the domain of myth and magic. Atheism+ can be seen as a convenient label for better orchestrating and linking practices that many ‘atheist’ organizations already routinely engage in.

3. Pursuant to building a safe space, they want to exclude people looking to harass other atheists. They don’t want to cut off reasoned disagreement; but they do want to leapfrog inane controversies over decisions as simple as instituting anti-harassment policies at conferences.

Notice that these are three profoundly different goals. They may all be complementary in the long haul, but if we forget their distinctness, we risk conflating them and thinking that 3 is about excluding all dissenting voices, not just bullies. Unpacking these goals also makes it clear that there is a tension between 1 and 2. Holding separate meetings so you can focus more closely on a specific shared interest is fine, but if you go too far in this direction you’ll end up abandoning your first goal, which was to gradually move the entire skeptical movement in the direction of activist humanism, bridging the gap and sealing the rift between these two strains of irreligious thought. […]

Here are my three proposals.

1. Define Yourselves.

It isn’t always crazy to let a term’s usage evolve naturally out of people’s amorphous intuitions. But in an already acrimonious environment, it’s asking for trouble. People listen most to those they agree with; when we strongly and consistently disagree, we tend to ignore or misinterpret each other. Thus each faction begins to converge upon a different definition, each new ambiguity compounding both the number of disputes and the difficulty and uselessness of resolving any one of them!

This is a case where artificially selecting your terminology will serve you far better than letting different, incompatible conceptions bubble up all over the place. Some degree of miscommunication, of course, is unavoidable. But it will be far easier to combat if there exists a fixed meaning to appeal to somewhere.—and if you plan to actually build an organization called ‘Atheism+’, you certainly have a right to decide what you mean when you use that term!

Notice that a definition is not a creed. Indeed, clarifying what Atheism+ is is one of the best ways to clarify what it isn’t—that it isn’t a set of doctrines, for example. […]

2. Be An Umbrella.

Your goals of attracting supporters and converting critics are both better served when you build bridges than when you burn them. And you’ll need a whole lot of help from existing humanist, secularist, and other activist organizations if you want to be seen as the Next Big Thing and not just as another escalation in the petty infighting that’s already been driving people away from the movement.

[… I]t might be wise to have two different terms for the organization and the larger movement, both for rhetorical and organizational purposes. I’d recommend treating ‘Atheism+’ as a single organization and using a totally different term—say, third-wave atheism—for the broader grassroots movement combining New Atheist methods with humanist values. This would encourage unbelievers who object to ‘Atheism+’ as a label, but share its concerns, to work with Atheism+ and propagate its memes. The third wave could grow into a loose coalition or federation of independent groups that regularly collaborate on charity drives, social activism, and other activities beyond the bounds of secularism. A distinction of this sort would insulate Atheism+ from concerns that it considers itself the only game in town, while also insulating third-wave atheism from any A+-specific baggage or ill will. Seems like a win-win.

3. Learn To Persuade.

Atheism+ has a rhetoric problem. A serious one. Your opponents, of course, share this fault. But I care more about helping Atheism+ achieve its goals, so I care more right now about critiquing and enhancing you plussers’ tactics and discursive habits.

This deserves its own post, but for now I’ll focus on just one key point: Name-calling kills thinking.

It doesn’t matter whether the name happens to be apt. It doesn’t matter how frustrated you are, or how entertaining your closest associates find the barb. Making a personal attack servesnone of your aims. It doesn’t persuade, it alienates spectators, it offers us no real psychological insights, and it lowers the quality of discourse in general. You could spend all day writing a subtle and sublime exposition of the true meaning of charity, but if you end with a footnote denouncing the people who disagree with you as “douchebags” or “assholes”, nearly all of your effort will fall on deaf ears. It is terrifyingly inefficient to rouse the fight-or-flight response of an already wary audience. It doesn’t even matter whether the people you intended to dismiss are the same people you anger; your mere choice of tone and word will reliably short-circuit our lizard brains, making us likelier to see enemies and battles instead of teaching opportunities.

Anger yields anger. Lizard thinking breeds lizard thinking. Treating people as enemies, rather than as students or collaborators, creates new enemies. More and more, these patterns choke off real understanding and debate. More and more, you find yourselves scaring away fence-sitters where you should be calmly enlightening them. You must put a complete end to your part of the cycle.

If you do not do this, I shudder at the loss. There are too many opportunities here, too many conversations long overdue, to let the more ancient and intemperate parts of all our brains ruin it for us.