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I write the monthly “Beliefs” column for The New York Times and also report for The Atlantic, The Nation, This American Life, and elsewhere. I have four daughters and two dogs.

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What to do with the anti-vaxxers?



The very fine essayist Eula Biss — who, being sane, did vaccinate her son — has a new book out about the cultural ambivalence about vaccination. Dwight Garner reviewed it in today’s Times, and I had my say in The New Republic. I write, “Vaccinating children should not be up for debate, so to read an elegant, incisive book that takes the debate seriously is bound to be an ambivalent experience. This is a book fair to both sides of a debate that, among people who know the evidence, does not exist. That there’s a market for it makes it a curiosity, a time-capsuled bit of evidence for a hysterical fad that surely must pass.”



Atheism and misogyny

At long last, my reporting on misogyny in the atheist/freethought world has been published by Buzzfeed. Next week I will be on the Center for Inquiry’s podcast talking about the article, and tomorrow evening I will be on John Batchelor’s radio show. It’s a long (if worthwhile!) read, but it can be summed up here:

The reality of sexism in freethought is not limited to a few famous leaders; it has implications throughout the small but quickly growing movement. Thanks to the internet, and to popular authors like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Sam Harris, atheism has greater visibility than at any time since the 18th-century Enlightenment. Yet it is now cannibalizing itself. For the past several years, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and online forums have become hostile places for women who identify as feminists or express concern about widely circulated tales of sexism in the movement. Some women say they are now harassed or mocked at conventions, and the online attacks — which include Jew-baiting, threats of anal rape, and other pleasantries — are so vicious that two activists I spoke with have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. One of these women has been bedridden for two years.

To those outside the community, freethought would seem an unlikely candidate for this sort of internal strife. Aren’t atheists and agnostics supposed to be liberal, forward-thinking types? But from the beginning, there has been a division in freethought between the humanists, who see atheism as one part of a larger progressive vision for society, and the libertarians, for whom the banishment of God sits comfortably with capitalism, gun rights, and free-speech absolutism. One group sees men like Michael Shermer as freethought’s big problem, while the other sees defending them as crucial to freethought’s mission.

 The roots of today’s crisis can be found in the post-war history of the movement. The groups that make up the broader freethought community — atheists, who don’t believe in a god; agnostics, who are unsure; secular humanists, who seek to replace god-centered religion with a man-made ethical system; church-state separationists, who just want religion kept out of public life; and scientific skeptics, who work to overthrow superstition and pseudoscience — have two things in common. First, they oppose the hegemony of religious, including New Age, thinking in American culture. And second, they all have roots in very male subcultures.
The text below, in an image of Michael Shermer from the original article, reads, “One group sees men like Michael Shermer as freethought’s big problem, while the other sees defending them as crucial to freethought’s mission.”

Zionism for Refugees


I expected more angry mail about this piece. Did I just convince everyone?


Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match


You want to know how to get a lot of mail? Write about legendary Jewish matchmaker Tova Weinberg, and wait for e-mails to pour in from people who want to know how to get in touch and ask for her help.


Michael Oren, that was not a good piece about Zionism

Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, is a good historian and probably a good man. But as an opinion columnist, he is just a shameless propagandist, at least to judge by his recent Wall Street Journal piece. Excerpt from what I had to say:

In any event, I come not to attack or defend Zionism, but rather to discuss what somebody like Michael B. Oren owes to his audience. When he was a government official of Israel, it was to be expected that he offer up simplistic paeans to his adopted homeland. What worries me is that as a professor he’s still at it. As somebody whose career calling now entails ruthless honesty at all costs—for that’s what professors are paid to do: seek and disseminate truth—he should begin any defense of Zionism, or Israel, with unsparing admissions of all the best arguments on his opponents’ side, phrased in language that his opponents would recognize. Intellectual can never be afraid to look at their own soft underbellies.

Of course, Oren’s failure here is not somehow specifically Israeli. In recent years, as American colleges and universities like New York University, Yale, and Wellesley have formed ill-considered alliances with repressive governments abroad, their faculties have been implicated in policies of those governments. When Yale sends faculty members to open up a college in cooperation with the government of Singapore—which bans student political parties—and promises that its faculty will help enforce Singaporean law, it’s doing its part to create little Orens: men and women who aren’t sure where their duties as scholars end and their duties as feds begin.

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