Friday, January 28, 2011

A 101 lesson: I don't owe you this lesson

This is perhaps an obvious Queer 101 lesson, but it should be said explicitly.  If you ever meet a gay person, they are not obligated to introduce you to the world of gay.  If you meet an asexual person they are not obligated to introduce you to the world of asexuality.  Likewise for any minority. These people are people, and they have their own lives to go about.  They are not your personal tour guide.

Well that's tough.  You want to learn all about queer issues, but your queer friends are unwilling to talk about it.  But you're never completely shut off from information.  You have the internet, you don't need to be spoon-fed.

This is important to emphasize, because it might not be immediately obvious from my own writing.  I clearly like to do a little 101.  I like explaining things in general.  I like it to a fault.

But there are two points to make.  First of all, not everyone is like me.  Obviously.

Second of all, even I have my limits.  I don't go around explaining my asexuality to everyone around me, because that is tiring, repetitive, and socially awkward.  I also somewhat prefer talking on a slightly higher level than 101, because I'm very interested in internal queer and asexual politics.  I don't much like giving remedial lessons on gayness, because that is so much bullshit.  Lastly, I generally avoid the kind of 101 that involves me telling you about my private life.  I think my private life has rather limited 101 value anyway.

There's an interesting question of politeness and social conventions contained within this issue.  In some contexts, I like it when people ask me about asexuality.  There are probably many other people who feel the same way.  Other people might get annoyed at the very question.  So how do you please everyone without knowing beforehand what they want?  Or at least, please as many people as possible?

In principle, it depends on how many people feel in each way.  If the vast majority of queers don't even like to be asked, then politeness says you shouldn't ask.  Unfortunately this is an empirical question, one we have no answer for.  It also might depend on what you ask, and in what context.  I only speak for myself, but I don't like questions about my sexual behavior, or questions from people I don't trust.

I think the best solution is to ask (if you're interested) but not in a demanding way.  Do it after you get to know the person as a person.  Or maybe that's not the best solution.  How can I know without knowing what everyone wants?  But one thing's for sure, if you are telling people that they are hurting their own cause by not giving you the explanation you demand, then you are part of the problem.

Monday, January 24, 2011


When I was at home, I found a box of old books, perhaps to be thrown away.  I recognized many of these from my childhood, little paperback novels likely ordered through Scholastic.  Most of them look like such crap now, but perhaps this is only because I'm not a little kid anymore.  But two books stood out, either because I treasured them when I was younger or because they are relevant to my current interests.  One of those books will perhaps be mentioned at a later point in time, the other is Now Entering Weirdsville!  The Strangest Stories You've Ever Heard.

I might describe its contents, but you could probably figure it out based on the cover.  The cover has a crooked sign with the title, with some creature in the dark peeking over it.  Scattered over the cover are various phrases like, "strange occurrences", "tales of the gross & gory", "just the facts!", "far-out people", "unexpected natural oddities", "incredible places", and "all true!"

Now, this book could go two ways.  It could either be a collection of weird yet true facts and stories, or it could uncritically advance all sorts of legends with hints that something paranormal is going on.  Based on a few quick glances it seems to be a combination of both.  To give a taste, there's an article on the Bermuda Triangle, and an article on platypuses.

The very first story is about the Faces of Belmez.  It sounds like this one falls into the category of "uncritically told legends", but let's not treat that as a foregone conclusion before we've even read the article.

The article tells of Maria Pereira, a housewife in Belmez, Spain.  She found phantom faces on her kitchen floor.  She couldn't scrub them off, and the more she tried the sadder the faces became.  After it started attracting tourists, scientists tried covering the floor with plastic (to prevent anyone from drawing new faces) and testing for artificial pigments, but with negative results.  One professor actually witnessed one of the faces forming and photographed it.  They tried excavating the soil underneath, and found ancient human bones.  Someone put a sensitive microphone in, and found "moans and tortured mournful voices wailing in unfamiliar languages".  Eventually the phenomenon ended.

It sounds like a hoax to me.  They certainly had the motivation (attracting tourism).  Investigators may not have found any evidence of a hoax, but perhaps the hoaxers were just too clever for them.  A really clever hoax is less extraordinary than centuries-old skeletons manifesting themselves as faces on floors, and therefore more likely to be true.  It's also possible that the book, Weirdsville, is not telling us everything, only one side.

I am not very good at investigative skepticism, so I'm not sure I could figure what's missing by myself.  My best move is to refer to other investigative skeptic sites, like Skeptoid.

Amusingly, Brian Dunning says this is a very cut and dried case, and instead digresses into things like the cultural context and how even quaint myths can cause harm.  Unfortunately, most of the details of how the hoax was perpetrated have been left out, presumably to be found in his extensive list of further reading.  I decided that I don't actually care enough about the Faces of Belmez to look for these in a library.  I suppose it will forever remain a mystery to me the source of the professor's testimony, or how precisely the hoaxer got underneath the plates of plastic.  (I would guess that the plastic simply wasn't as secure as the investigators thought.)

As for those pigment tests, Dunning says they came back positive, and that the city recognized it as a clear hoax.  That seems like a weird thing for Weirdsville to omit.  Is it... is it lying to its readers?  My whole childhood was a lie built to keep me entertained!

Another weird thing is that Dunning says the phenomenon ended with Maria's death in 2004.  Weirdsville also notes that the phenomenon ended (without specifying a date), but Weirdsville was published in 1992!  There's a whole new mystery for us to ponder.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Unattainable goals

In an earlier post, I commented that one goal many atheists have is to end religion.  I'm keenly aware that this is a goal that many object to.  One of the stranger objections people make is, "You don't actually think that's an attainable goal, do you?" as if to suggest that we should just give up any effort of any kind.  It's a form of concern trolling, advising people on how to accomplish their goals without actually sharing those goals.

I hesitate to label this as a logical fallacy, but it is a peculiar line of reasoning that I see applied in many contexts.  Why should we try to eliminate poverty if there will always be poor people?  Why try to eliminate war if there will always be war?  Why try to eliminate superstition if there will always be superstition?

It's a distracting argument.  We could easily get caught up in the issue of just how attainable our goals are.  It's quite possible that I really do think the reduction of religion is more attainable than some of my adversaries do.  But that's besides the point.  The point is that this is black-and-white thinking.  Superstition is not an all or nothing thing.  Superstition can have different degrees of prevalence.  There can be different degrees of disparity between poor and rich.  War can be reduced.

If I say, "I would want to end superstition", it's not an attempt to make a black-and-white statement.  I'm really saying that the closer in degree we are to ending superstition, the better.  I also happen to think that we can get at least a little closer to that goal if we try, but who knows, maybe we can't.  Maybe we're just running on a hopelessly fast treadmill.  That doesn't mean we should stop running.

There's one situation where the unattainable goal argument might work.  I think it could be used, at least at first, against a communist's goal of revolution.  The benefits of revolution don't exist until revolution is actually achieved.  And with communists being as few as they are, revolution seems like an unattainable goal.  But I'm sure a number of objections could be raised (and will be raised in the comments).  I could see it argued that revolution is attainable after all, though perhaps after a long sustained effort.  Revolution has happened countless times throughout history.  I could also see it argued that there is some way to approach revolution by degree, and that the closer the better.  My point is that the unattainable goal argument cannot be used to bypass substantive arguments, even if the subject is revolution.

A related argument is to say the end goal is undesirable.  If we were to completely eliminate religion, we would have unhealthy levels of uniformity of opinion, and effectively no freedom of religion.  I'm actually sympathetic to these arguments, but it's all moot.  Complete elimination is unattainable, and in the event it becomes attainable we can reconsider the issue.  Right now, the relevant issue is whether small reductions in religion relative to our current state are desirable.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The science of Ophiuchus

It's recently hit the news that there is a 13th astrological sign Ophiuchus.  Furthermore, all other signs have been shifted by about a month; so while I would be classified as a Gemini, technically I'm supposed to be a Taurus.

This is literally ancient news.  The usual dates for astrological signs were defined about 3,000 years ago.  Each sign was named for the constellation that would be behind the sun at that time of year.  But the sun is no longer in front of the same constellation as it was 3,000 years ago at the same time of year.  The dates of the signs should have gradually shifted in a process known as the precession of the equinoxes.

But most astrologers don't use shifted dates.  According to Wikipedia, this is because they emphasize the "symbolic or metaphorical meaning of the star signs".  But I daresay that most people who read their horoscope simply don't know about the precession of the equinoxes.  Myself, I think that the signs have no meaning at all, and the perceived accuracy of horoscopes is merely a testament to how similar our experiences are, or to the power of the Forer effect.

The precession of the equinoxes has to do with the "wobble" of the earth.

(Source: NASA)

The earth has an axis of rotation (in red), but this axis slowly moves in a circle (in white above the earth).  This process is distinct from the spin and orbit of the earth.  The earth spins around its axis once a day.  It orbits around the sun once a year.  The axis of rotation precesses in a full circle approximately every 26,000 years.  Therefore, in 3,000 years, the axis of rotation has moved by more than one ninth of a full circle.

While a spinning object will continue to spin due to inertia, a precessing object needs some force to maintain the precession.  Consider a gyroscope that we've set on a table.
(Source: Wikipedia)

The wobbling of the gyroscope is precession.  In the case of the gyroscope, precession is caused by the weight of the gyroscope, as well as the force of the table holding it up.  But the earth is not lying on a table.  Instead, the precession of the earth is caused by the gravitational forces of the sun and moon.  More specifically, it's caused by tidal forces, the same ones that cause the tides.

How does this affect the dates of the astrological symbols?  It has to do with the tricky definition of a year.  North of the equator, the start of each new year occurs some time in winter.  Winter occurs when the Earth's axis of rotation is pointing away from the sun.  But if the axis of rotation moves, that means that winter moves!

(original image; axial tilt exaggerated for clarity)

To make sure that our calendar keeps up with the seasons, we have a tricky definition of a year.  A year is not the time it takes for the earth to orbit.  A year is defined in such a way that it keeps up with the seasons.  If we want to talk about how long it takes the earth to orbit, we call that a sidereal year, which is slightly longer than the year we normally use, the tropical year.

The thing is, winter moves around, but the constellations don't move much at all.  That's why precession shifts the astrological signs.

But wait!  Why do we have a new astrological sign, Ophiuchus?  It turns out that the answer is far less scientific.  Back in ancient times, when the dates of the astrological signs were solidified, astrologers divided the sun's path through the stars into twelve equally-spaced segments.  Each of the twelve segments was assigned to a different constellation.  But the fact of the matter is that these constellations are not equally sized.  In fact, the "size" of a constellation isn't even very well defined, since what is a constellation but a set of stars that's supposed to look like something (but usually doesn't really).

Seriously, that does not look like a crab, even after you've drawn the imaginary lines.

This didn't do for the International Astronomical Union. So in 1930 they defined specific regions of the sky as belonging to different constellations.  These regions are arbitrary, but hopefully less arbitrary than the regions defined by astrologers thousands of years ago.  Using these definitions, the twelve astrological signs are no longer of equal length in the year, and the sun passes in front of a thirteenth constellation, Ophiuchus.  (source)

And so if you were born between November 29 and December 17, your sign according to the IAU is Ophiuchus, the serpent bearer.  The symbol is the Rod of Asclepius, a snake entwined around a staff.  This almost makes up for Pluto!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Recent reading

In off-topic news, I got some reading done over winter break.  A friend recommended The Book of the New Sun, a sci-fi/fantasy tetralogy by Gene Wolfe.  I am precisely halfway through.

I'm assuming that most of you have never read it or heard of it.  Very briefly, it centers on a professional torturer, the narrator, Severian, who gets exiled from his home.  As he adventures, we slowly get a description of the world, though he doesn't seem to understand a lot of it.  It's a world so far in the future that technology has gone all the way and come back again, leaving remnants that are indistinguishable from magic.

This is... my kind of book.  There are a lot of puzzles littered around, things you would miss without reading carefully and connecting the dots.  For a non-spoiler example, Severian once describes a painting of a knight in a desert with a reflective helmet without eye slits, and a strange staff with a banner.  A character remarks that the moon wasn't irrigated at the time of the painting.

But a lot of it just doesn't make sense.  Either because I missed it, it's explained later, or because there are just too many mysteries for them all to be explained by an unreliable narrator.  I find both the solved and unsolved mysteries to be wonderful.

There's also a deep undercurrent of irony.  Severian pledges loyalty both to the guild of torturers, as well as to a revolutionary death cult that wishes to defeat the current political structure and bring back the prosperity of ancient times.  Neither allegiance has very good justification, and they contradict each other.  This hit me half-way through the first book, and I got to thinking how profoundly silly are many of the things in the world, many of the things Severian does, as well as his self-indulgent philosophical musings (once he compares the art of writing to the art of torturing).  This is good, because I need my literature to be coated with a layer of satire so thick that it's virtually unrecognizable as such.

I also read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which is a very different book.  It also has puzzles, but of the explicit sort, since the narrator just likes doing math and puzzles.  I found these a lot easier to solve than the ones in The Book of the New Sun, because wouldn't you know it, I am very skilled at solving explicit puzzles.  It was a light, decent read.

I heard that it was told from the perspective of an autistic boy, but I know better than to take it for granted that it's an accurate portrayal.  It'd probably be best to ask an autistic person or an autism expert.  A quick google turned up some differing opinions, as well as a statement by the author that he has no autism expertise.  Well, there you go...  I offer no further opinion, as I don't have the expertise for my opinion to be worth anything.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Angry activism: a comparison

As promised, it's time to compare how tone is treated in different social movements.  In particular, I'm thinking of the movements that I myself am involved in: the skeptical, atheist, queer, and asexual movements.

Let me preface this with a warning: it is very difficult to argue that one movement should learn from another.  For example, I often see people arguing that atheists should adopt the same tone that skeptics use in countering pseudoscientific claims.  Three problems:
  1. It is naive to assume that skeptics have settled the issue any more than atheists have.  From the outside, every movement looks more monolithic than it really is.
  2. It may very well be that skepticism merits a different tone than atheism.
  3. How do we know the skeptics know better than the atheists?  You could just as easily argue that skeptics should learn from atheists, not the other way around.
And yet, the implicit goal of a comparison is for each movement to learn something from the others.  Just try to keep in mind that we are grappling with a nearly impossible argument.

Let's look at the issue within the structure established in a previous post on atheist tone.

1. Different Goals

The different goals between movements is a pretty good reason to think that the different movements may merit different tones.  Skeptics try to educate.  Atheists try to persuade.  Queers fight for acceptance.  Asexuals fight for visibility.

Focusing on atheism vs queerness, it might be said that atheists should be meaner, because it doesn't really matter if people like atheists as people, just that they reject supernaturalism.  On the other hand, it might be said that queers should be more passionate, because the entire point is to have people accept all queers, not just the ones that have a calm disposition.  Which view do you think is correct?

On the third hand, the goals of the different movements are not quite as different as they might appear.  Recall that all movements have multiple goals, and different people within the movement prioritize them differently.

Atheists also fight for social acceptance.  In college, just as I knew a lot of queers who did not get along with their families or  hid from their families, I knew some freethinkers who were in the same situation.  It's the reason for the OUT campaign, which intentionally parallels the gay rights movement. The queer movement, too, tries to persuade people.  Queers must persuade people of facts (eg conversion therapy doesn't work), as well as values (eg the need for love is more important than the need for complementary genitals).  As we move towards asexuality, persuading people of values is a major component.  The primary message might be that sex and love are subjective values, and that society needs to make space for non-standard relationships.

Skepticism's goals might be a little harder to relate to the others, since self-identity isn't as important.  But skeptics, like atheists, also counter many claims that have wide social acceptance, and where emotions run high.  And while skepticism is superficially just about facts, it is most fundamentally about the values of honesty and critical thinking.  Those may seem simple values enough, but people miss the details (eg paying attention to cognitive biases, not privileging cherished beliefs, knowing the relative importance of different kinds of evidence).  You'd also be surprised how many people expediently question the value of truth once criticism gets directed towards them.

2. Stereotypes

Here's where we realize just how unlucky atheists have it.  There is an angry atheist stereotype, but there is hardly an angry queer, angry asexual, or angry skeptic stereotype.  The stereotype complicates and obfuscates issues.  We might guess that it has a negative effect on the overall tone, though I'm not sure there is any real basis to think so.  But if that's what we think, then atheists should learn from other movements which are not hindered by such stereotypes.

On the other hand, queers have a stereotype with a similar function.  Queers are supposed to be fabulous, over the top, sassy, fashionable, dramatic, hypersexual, in your face, and so on.  These qualities are not necessarily negative qualities (just as anger is not necessarily a negative quality), but they have a profound effect on the group dynamics.  Many LGBTQ people, their fear is to be associated with those people.  Others have come to realize that these qualities are not necessarily bad things, and want to show the world that they are great things.  Still other views span the gamut.

But for some reason there is little discussion about whether queers should be angry, or whether atheists should be sassy.  Perhaps the way I've titled this post, "angry activism" is atheist-centric.  It's not about anger, it's a more general issue of tone, outspokenness, and visibility.  Tone is a big issue in all movements, but it's discussed in different ways.

3. Tone vs substance

In atheist discourse, there is an association between more extreme views and angrier tone.  I don't really see any parallel with skeptical or asexual discourse.  But there is a parallel in queer discourse.  I would define "extreme" queer views as being more radically and actively inclusive of all minorities, even those who do not fit any of the named groups.  My impression is that these views are associated with a harsher and more passionate tone.  They're also associated, not with the stereotype exactly, but with non-normative, non-gender-conforming people who are in your face.

The tone/substance association makes sense, but it also doesn't make sense.  It makes sense that people whose views are further from the norm would adopt a more critical tone, but that hardly seems like the biggest factor.  Talking about tone is a disingenuous way to tackle substance, and talking about substance is an inappropriate way to tackle tone.

And of course, individuals don't follow such trends.  I would characterize my own views on atheism and queerness as very radical, but I'm not particularly passionate person.  (I'm also not actually that playful... haha, awkward laugh.)  I also look very straight and gender-conforming.  That's just the way I am.

4. Style vs Strategy

As explained previously, I suspect that people just adopt whatever tone suits them, and find justification after the fact.  After years of seeing arguments as to why one tone is more effective than another, I remain profoundly unconvinced that anyone has a clue.  A mixed strategy seems prudent, but is it the best of all worlds?

Movements adopt a mixed strategy not because we've agreed that each kind of tone should receive however much weight, but because everyone is just doing their own thing.  Various people may try to achieve a tone that aligns with a strategy rather than their personal style.  But the overall effect on the tone of the movement is random rather than systematic, since everyone has different views on the best strategy.

That is, unless the movement is so small that one view on strategy dominates.  This is what I see in the asexual movement, which is currently very small and centralized.  It's not just that one medium, the internet forum, dominates the discussion, but that one particular forum, AVEN, dominates.  As others have noted, AVEN looks very very polite from the perspective of people with experience in other movements.

I'm inclined to think, though without much basis, that this is a bad thing.  A mixed strategy seems safer, since different strategies reach different audiences, and it doesn't put all our eggs in one basket.  There's also a big concern that a single strategy ends up excluding many people whose natural style just doesn't align.  This is especially important in a movement where inclusiveness is one of the major goals.

Contrast with skepticism, where inclusiveness is not one of the major goals.  While there is something of a skeptic "identity", I don't think of it as a distinct group.  If you asked me how skeptical you have to be to be considered a "skeptic", I'd say, "Sheesh, who cares!"  Skepticism is just a cause, a practice, a set of views and goals, and sometimes there are organizations with members in them.  The primary goal is to get the message out, not to focus on skeptics as a group.  As such, I think it is legitimate to criticize people's styles, even if they are individuals' natural styles.  Same goes for atheism, to a lesser extent.

The problem being that no one actually knows what style is best.  Clearly mine is the best, or that would make me a terrible activist, and I have a cognitive bias against believing that.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Circular cutouts

Find the ratio of the shaded area to the area of the square.  No calculus is required.

This is not an original puzzle.  Rather, I consider it a classic.

see the solution

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Candy combinatorics solution

See the original puzzles

Candy Giveaway

Take 24 objects in a row.  Choose any 5 of them.  Call the chosen objects "candy" and the not-chosen objects "dividers".  Then arrange the 20 students in a row.  The first student gets the amount of candy to the left of the first divider.  The second student gets the amount of candy between the first and second divider.  The third student gets the amount of candy between the second and third divider.  And so on.

Each way to choose 5 objects out of 24 corresponds to a unique way to distribute candy.  And each way of distributing candy corresponds to a unique way of choosing 5 objects out of 24.  Therefore, the number of ways to give out the candy is C(24,5).

In general, for N students and K pieces of candy, it's C(N+K-1,K).

Class Candy Clash

I think this one is a bit of a headbanger, though it's hidden underneath some math.

In the two classes, there are a total of 40 students.  Choose any 20 of them.  The students chosen in my class participate in the competition.  The students in my colleague's class that were not chosen participate in the competition.  In this way, both my class and her class have equally sized teams.

Thus, there are C(40,20)-1 different possibilities (subtracting off 1, so as to eliminate the possibility of having zero students participate).

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Dream: The followup

I had a dream... I don't quite remember it, but there was a skeptical podcast.  And the podcasters kept on bugging this evolution denier, and bugging and bugging.  "He still hasn't responded to our criticisms," they said.

Sheesh, why am I dreaming about these things?  I don't even listen to any podcasts anymore!  Let it be known that very few of my dreams are skeptically themed, it's just the ones that make it into my blog.

So I had an insight--in the dream--that this is what skepticism is all about.  It's about following up previous stories, reminding everyone that those beliefs are still wrong, and its supporters have still failed to produce any evidence.

But now that I'm awake, I'm questioning my in-dream insight.

Well, yes, writing about skepticism means writing about a lot of the same kinds of claims over and over again.  I don't know that this means that a single podcast has to single-handedly tackle the same perpetrator of the same claim over and over on the same issue.  That is one possible tactic, I suppose.  It'd probably get boring though, unless you're reaching new audiences with every repetition.  There are plenty of other skeptical voices out there to tackle the issue, and those voices are likely to offer fresher perspectives and reach different audiences.

For some reason, my dream-self didn't bother to think of any of this!  Try harder dream-self, try harder.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Atheism is a social movement (not a religion)

John Loftus wrote a short article called "The Trouble with Atheists? No Organization."  Hemant summarized the five points well:
1) We don’t provide a united front.
2) We have no leaders.
3) We cannot agree on anything else but religion.
4) We have no agreed upon causes.
5) We cannot agree about tactics.
 Loftus concludes that these weaknesses are also our strength.

Though Loftus' article expresses a sentiment that I have seen many times over the years, when I read it this time, I had a different reaction.  It's a sign that my experience in the queer community has really begun to affect the way I think about these things.

The way I see it now, Loftus is setting the bar bizarrely high.  The high bar reflects two tendencies among the atheist community.  The first tendency, a tendency that exists within all communities, is to perceive one's own group as diverse and other groups as monolithic.  The second tendency is to compare atheism to religion rather than comparing it to other social movements.

We have no leaders?  What about famous authors, most notably the four horsemen?  What about bloggers (since I'm very blog-centric) like Greta, Hemant, PZ, John Loftus, and countless others?  What about leaders of real organizations, like FFRF, SCA, SSA, and American Atheists (whose logo was ironically included in Loftus' article)?  I'm not sure what Loftus thinks a leader is, exactly, if none of these count.

If you compare to other social movements (and in my own mind, I'm comparing in particular to the queer and asexual movements), the idea that atheists do not have leaders makes no sense.  The only way I can make sense of it is by comparing atheism to religion.  Well, yes, atheism has no pope.  There's no preacher to hand down dogmas.  There's no hierarchical church structure with elaborate rituals and dress.

Um.  But that's the way most movements are.  Most movements merely have influential voices, role models, and organizations that only represent part of the group.  If anything, religion is the exception, not atheism.

All the points have a similar problem.  Either Loftus is setting the bar too high for what constitutes an "agreed upon cause", or having agreed upon causes is unreasonable to expect.  Either he's setting the bar too high for what constitutes a "unified front", or having a unified front is unreasonable to expect. Etc. Etc.

The high expectations are based on a comparison to religion (as well as an overestimate of just how monolithic religion is).  If you compare to other social movements, they all have their factions.  They mostly lack official leaders, and what official leaders they have do not represent the entire group.  It's hard for me to agree that this makes atheism stronger, when this is just the normal state of things.  Stronger as compared to what?  Religion?

I suggest that we not even bother with the comparison with religion (unless our goal is to talk about religion rather than atheism).  If we indeed think that religion is bad, and that its organization contributes to its badness, this is irrelevant to how atheism is run.  There is a qualitative difference between atheism and religion, since atheism is a social movement, not a religion.  If we really wanted to learn from other groups, we should compare ourselves to other social movements that are more or less organized by degree, not ones that are altogether different.